The ever-thinning line between film and theater is tantalizingly traversed in “The Novice,” Richard Eyre’s reclamation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1948 existentialist template “Les Mains Sales” (Dirty Hands). Why film? Because Eyre’s production, his second for the Almeida following David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss,” serves as an unshowy object lesson in the ways in which the virtues of movies can come startlingly into view onstage. It’s not just the film noir feel that hangs over the piece, or the fact that the female lead — Natasha Little’s ravishing Jessica — 50 years ago might have been played by Veronica Lake. Between Richard Hartley’s subtly ominous musical underscoring and Eyre’s own fluency, the production comes as close as I have seen of late to suggesting a screenplay onstage, although there may be some who wonder — with regards to the play — whether such directorial legerdemain is worth it.
Sartre came to “Dirty Hands” four years after his best-known play, “No Exit,” and that title could well apply to Sartre’s hero of sorts here. Hugo (Jamie Glover) is a young man born into privilege who finds that real life lies in the ways of the revolutionary, even if his commitment to the party — and to principles — means killing the very leader, Hoederer (Kenneth Cranham), whom he dearly loves. While Hoederer talks of dirtying his hands in the compromises and mess and sweat that make up party maneuvering, Hugo insists on purity at whatever the (considerable) price. The result leads Hugo down an ideological cul-de-sac which, on some level, even he knows to be absurd, as he relates the story to us in flashbacks that — as handled by Eyre — amount to so many vibrant cinematic dissolves.
Hugo’s desire is to act, not just to be, and it’s difficult for the play not to devolve into a series of responses to his Hamlet-like conundrum. The characters merely end up embodying various positions on a spinning philosophical spectrum. To that end, Eyre’s wildly free adaptation of the Sartre original both generalizes the action — what party, exactly, are we talking about? — and locates it amid the belligerent tough talk (references to “kneecaps” and the like) of so many ongoing tensions today. “The Novice” has one foot in Eastern Europe and another in Northern Ireland, with its two henchmen — George (Alex Palmer) and the delightfully named Slick (Frank Harper) — seemingly occupying a separate domain marked out by the amiable thugs in “Kiss Me, Kate.”
The language is certainly feisty. Not only does “The Novice” contain more expletives than your average David Mamet play, but it seems almost deliberately grounded, lest audiences fear an impenetrable flight of fancy. True to its source, Eyre never lets us forget that playacting was as interesting to Sartre as “being” itself. And so the play, appropriately, is shot through with reminders of the performance that is life, right down to Hugo’s ultimate admission of defeat: “I tried to keep the show going.” At times, the writing is almost parodically hardboiled (“What do you want, trouble?” asks Hoederer in a line made to order for Bogey) and not a little hermetic.
But then Mark Henderson’s shadowy lighting floods the floor with stripes and the backdrop of yet another gorgeous Anthony Ward set (this one elegantly decaying and stained) gives way, and one is swept up anew in an exercise in style above and beyond the substance.
The actors collectively rise to the challenge of Sartre as he might sound filtered through Martin Scorsese. Glover doesn’t quite have the innate charisma for the demanding central part, although there’s something undeniably affecting about his little-boy-lost demeanor set against the character’s own, ultimately lethal idealism. Playing the two women in Hugo’s orbit, Emer Gillespie and Little do well by their prickly badinage, with Little so naturally alluring a stage presence that one awaits her return, and soon.
Easily the most relaxed turn comes from veteran character actor Cranham, the voice of conscience in “An Inspector Calls” here playing a man of clarity who understands life as it is lived, not as it might be imagined. “Lying,” he tells us, “is the grease that keeps politics going,” and the audience duly purrs in response, not least because at that point they know that whatever the play’s limitations, the production that is “The Novice” is in the hands of a master.