Men Without Shadows
By Jean Paul Sartre.
Directed by Mitchell Moreno.
Finborough Theatre, London, UK

13th June - 7th July 2007

Men Without Shadows explores how six prisoners deal with the prospect of being tortured and torture itself. The prisoners are members of the maquis, the underground French movement, which opposed the Nazis during the occupation of France. They’re imprisoned in a makeshift militia office, having been captured during a bungled attempt to take a local village.

We join the prisoners as they are coming to terms with the fact that their bungled operation cost many innocent lives. They also begin to face up to the prospect of their imminent torture. The play revolves around Lucie, the only female prisoner, whose stoicism is disturbing and in stark contrast to the dread and fear displayed by her younger brother Francois. There are three other prisoners: Henri who has a crush on Lucie, Canoris and Sorbier.

A later arrival is Jean, the leader of the bungled attempt to storm the local village, and Lucie’s lover. Jean, played by Sam Hodges, is a swashbuckling character who you would expect to pique Henri, but strangely the dialogue between the two characters lacks any real edge, and Henri lacks the vindictiveness and brooding you might expect.

The play also involves four militiamen, who start to torture the prisoners. Jean escapes the torture because the militia seem to be unsure of his identity. In one scene, the militiamen hold Henri’s head in water for an unfathomably long period of time, the audience holds its breath in unison. It’s not the only scene of disturbing violence; we also get to witness strangulation.

As each prisoner is taken out of the prison to face torture, Jean grows more and more isolated as his exemption from torture excludes him from the one experience which bonds the prisoners. His isolation is an example of one of the tenets in Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, that the successful making of the self requires a sense of solidarity with one’s contemporaries. As an onlooker it is hard to decide whether one would opt for the torture or Jean’s loneliness.

Interestingly this theme is repeated amongst the militiamen as Landrieu, the leader, grows increasingly repulsed by his subordinates’ enjoyment of torture. It is the ice cold and debonair Clochet, well played by Andrew Fallaize, who piques Landrieu the most. Clochet has close links with the militia’s hierarchy, and has been known to get his bosses disposed of in the past. He indiscreetly makes notes in a little book, whenever Landrieu does something he thinks the powers that be would disapprove of.

One of the most fascinating moments of the play comes when Landrieu puts on loud music and dances to drown out the sounds of torture. It is the same music the prisoners dance to, to take their thoughts away from their impending fate. For a second Landrieu and the prisoners are united in a common cause.

We find out that Lucie has suffered a two hour torture ordeal including gang rape but has not broken. For Lucie this is an achievement which effectively unites her with her fellow prisoners, but effectively ends her faith in love, and is the final nail in the existentialist coffin of Jean. Sad I guess, and sad enough for someone sitting behind me to start sobbing.

The play ends with the prisoner’s sense of unity being put to the ultimate test, and you’re left pondering is a life without pride worth more or less than pride without life?

This is a thoroughly engaging play without ever being completely captivating, and one which reminds us that it is only when we are in opposition against a common adversary that we feel truly together.

Mike Williams