Meanwhile, somewhere in hell

12 May 2023

We’ve all been stuck in waiting room hell, but would you want to watch a play about it? After seeing Hell is Other People, Nina Levy says yes.

Hell is Other People, Monkey Brain
The Blue Room Theatre, 11 May 2023

What if hell was a waiting room? What if you were stuck there for eternity with two other people?

That’s the premise of Hell is Other People, created and directed by local emerging theatre-maker Yvan Karlsson, founder of physical and visual theatre company Monkey Brain. 

It’s a smart title, because we can all relate (at least sometimes) to this oft-misunderstood Sartre quote. However, that’s not what makes this work clever.

The genius of this reimagining of Sartre’s 1944 existentialist play No Exit (from which the quote is drawn) is that it’s told entirely in movement. No words, aside from the occasional – and entertaining – lip-synched song-breaks that frame and punctuate the action.

The word “action” is, perhaps, ironic – as one might expect in a waiting room, not much happens. But if you lean in, you’ll discover tiny and but juicy moments of humour, delivered with panache by the cast of four.

As Karlsson implies in his program notes, you could familiarise yourself with the plot of No Exit – there are some references for those who have – or you could take this re-working at face value. It’s a show “about three people in a waiting room”. Oh, and there’s another character – an administrator? The devil? – who flits in and out, seemingly with no intention other than to torment the others.

Falling into Sartre’s line of unrequited attraction, the three un-named inhabitants of the waiting room are wittily depicted by Tim Green, Lucy Wong and Kimberly Parkin. Channelling Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean, Green’s character is comic gold with his fixations, fascinations and neuroses, alongside his gloriously awkward physicality.

A scene from Hell is Other People: Three people sitting in a waiting room with a fourth man standing in the corner. They look bored.
Life really can be hell when you’re sitting in a waiting room. Photo: BSP

It’s instant repulsion when Wong’s character enters with a studied calm so intentional it’s aggressive. Then polished, tucked and tidy, Parkin’s character brings sexual tension into the room.

You’ll have to pay close attention. The confrontations are often subtle, but beautifully choreographed by Karlsson (slow synchronised head turns were a favourite of mine) and complemented by non-verbal utterances – a gasp, a grunt, a forceful nose exhalation. Sound designer David Stewart keeps the tension high with mechanical hums, unpredictable drips and sporadic but chilling reminders of the past that reference No Exit.

You do get rests from the micro-focus. It’s broken up by the aforementioned lip-synched song-breaks, performed by the charismatic but increasingly disturbing Nathan Di Giovanni, whose disco-inspired gyrations to Murder on the Dancefloor are an early highlight, even if it feels like overkill (no pun intended) to use the entire song. Midway through his (You’re the) Devil in Disguise number, the three other characters morph from smooth and sultry back-up singers to party animals who clap, stamp and strut with ghoulish intention.

Hell is Other People is a risky work, because it requires a high level of commitment from its audience, not just to paying close attention, but to reading non-verbal communication. It’s not going to be for everyone.

But it’s also exhilarating to see Karlsson take this risk, and if you make the commitment you’ll reap the rewards.

Hell is Other People continues at The Blue Room Theatre until 27 May 2023.

Pictured top: The cast of ‘Hell is Other People’ see red as they dance like ghouls. Photo: BSP

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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