Translating Sartre

Looking at my diary 16th April 2020 was a very French day. As well as listening to Building a Library on Fauré and reading Julian Jackson’s biography of de Gaulle, it was also the day where I noted, ‘Started Huis Clos translation.’ What brought that on?

Well, the first entry in that diary reads:

Today, mother died. Or maybe yesterday. I can’t be sure.


No, it doesn’t. She’s still very much with us (at the time of writing) despite smoking like a gitane and working in a care home throughout the pandemic. But there were times when I worried that that might be an entry in my diary.

No, the first line of the diary reads:

16th March 2020, Corona gets worse. Quiz off

It’s Mole-esque in its focus on the smaller picture. By the end of that week, after noting that our local tube station had shut on the 19th, I’d noted:

Everything fun shutting as of this evening.

So it took me a month of confinement to form a plan to get some kind of theatrical benefit out of the whole world of shit that was lockdown number one. Those familiar with Huis Clos will know that it concerns three people, two women and a man, who are trapped in a room together for the duration of the play. Each has done despicable things whose consequences have brought them there and through an hour of sex, violence and black humour Sartre examines their plight in pitiless fashion.

Now, I’m not saying that my experience of living with James and Denize through lockdown was one of unremitting existential dread. For a start having Mrs Woof in the mix was definitely a mood lightener, even on the most trying days. Even so, there are a fair few diary entries where it appears that sinister cracks may have been appearing in the Trubshavian façade.

So translating Sartre was a way of working through the misery of confinement and trying to make something positive come out of it. Over the course of 2020 and 2021 the diary tells a story of tortuous stop-start progress, beginning with:

12th May, happy, especially with Huis Clos revision

I decided to loosen up the play, much as I had with previous shows, rather than sticking rigidly to a direct translation of Sartre’s text. For the most part Sartre’s bones are very much visible beneath the skin but I wanted to bring the play into a contemporary setting, which meant changing the characters’ back stories somewhat and, more noticeably, making them swear a lot. Props of a paper knife and a Barbedienne (?) statue become a corkscrew and a lamp, which gave further opportunity for a comic touch here and there.

While writing I had the space above the Great Northern in mind. We’d used it for Corbyn Island and A Door (Must Be Open or Shut) and it worked perfectly in my mind as a claustrophobic room in which the actors would feel the audience crowding upon them in judgement.

All summer I waited as London life slowly uncurled itself from its armadillo ball until finally in September we were able to hold auditions (thanks to the rule of 6) and tentatively plan to do the show in the winter of 2020. The quiz was back on (keeping an eye on the important things in life) and we started to rehearse with a first class cast. Oh, but what’s this?

31st Oct., new lockdown announced. Joy.

Thoroughly fed up I put Sartre away and picked up some history writing that I’d been avoiding. Despite the easing of the lockdown in December no-one who wasn’t deluded thought that was going to last so we left any planning for the play until we could have a really good run at it.

In the meantime it was only in March 2021 that it occurred to me that I needed to get the Sartre estate’s permission to put on the play; acquiring rights hadn’t been an issue when dealing with the long dead Marivaux and De Musset! This must have brought on some kind of crisis since the entry for 24th April reads:

Play gone tits up.

I’m happy to say, however, that the Sartre estate (or at least the society of French authors that represented them) were a joy to work with and endlessly patient with our delays and uncertainty over venue. (As were the venue.) So we plugged away through the spring and summer until on August 20th:

Happy (!)

We rehearsed the show in rapid time in order to put it on before the autumn kicked in and there was a higher possibility that we may have to call it off again.

Of course there’s a big difference between a play on the page and a play on the stage. Vicky Murdock, our director, took care of the cast, which left me to do the design and music. Finding a song for Inès to sing that was as sinister as Sartre’s French original was one problem, until a flicker through my Spotify playlist turned up Karma Police. Fiona, our Inès, improvised some new lines to make the lyric more specific for our play.

Then there was the intro. Fortunately Feu! Chatterton had recently released a new album which had a wonderfully romantic downbeat song whose lyrics are appropriately existentialist, Avant qu’il n’y ait le monde, and I edited it to provide a brooding atmosphere prior to ‘curtain’ up.

Set design in the GNRT is always enjoyable in that the limitations imposed by budget and furniture to hand dictate creativity and economy. Obviously we couldn’t bugger around with the room too much, we didn’t want to disrespect the Bing, so we used the furniture that lay to hand for our minimalist set. The red blind in the corner inspired the decision to put our take on abstract expressionism (courtesy of Denize Levett) into the artworks to convey an infernal feel. As did the lava lamp, which glowed menacingly throughout the show, yet thankfully didn’t prove too distracting from what the actors were doing.

The lava lamp now has its own agent and has moved onto bigger things.

The nature of the room at the GNRT also allowed us to do some playful things for the preamble. Andrew, our Garçon, took part in the front of house in a most unsettling and amusing (for me, at least!) way before pulling back the partition to reveal that we were ALL in Hell.

Andrew menaces the audience.

And then there was the show. Our leads did a grand job of what is a tough play to put on. I hadn’t thought about the implication of all three actors having to be on stage for a full hour or so, something that would be demanding even for a seasoned professional. Our trio coped admirably, we had three happy full houses and the final night was a triumph.

Inès, Garcin and Estelle contemplate their situation.

As with all shows, when the final curtain came down we regretted that we hadn’t booked a longer run and I for one had a bout of post-show blues. But with a bit of distance I can reflect on what an extraordinary feat it was for all of us to persevere through the challenges of the past 18 months to put on a show at a time when most of London’s theatre had barely swept out their mothballs, let alone staged a full production. And we couldn’t have done it without the support of the Crouch End Players.

A satisfied No Exit customer

London Theatre

f1insburyparker View All →

Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).

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