The sawdust scattered in the ground suggests a circus, a place where performing animals might be found. Plush, red velvet curtains emphasise this notion as does the appearance of a Ringmaster, who pokes her head quizzically through the curtains, making way for three drably dressed men as they make their way into their cell.
More cage than cell, really. It’s a big structure, set slightly on angle, yet it seems a small space in which to house three men. There are vertical bars for walls, tough, unyielding bars which let in air but let little else out. One bed. One chair. A stool. No bucket. No sink. One set of bedding for the one bed. Three crumpled jackets hanging on pegs.
When the action starts, Green-Eyes, agile like a mountain gorilla, has climbed the bars and is seated aloft, looking down over his cell, his kingdom. He watches Lefranc, below and diagonally across the cell, determinedly throttling life out of Maurice.
Green-Eyes drags Lefranc off Maurice, saves the lad, thereby further ingratiating himself to Maurice and alienating Lefrance. Sweat, fear, power, alliances – the air is thick with their ripened smell.
And suddenly, it seems less like a circus ring and more like a gladiatorial endurance test, where the audience quickly becomes the judgmental watching crowd – desperate for slaughter, but not really sure why.
This is Geraldine Alexander’s claustrophobic and chilling revival of Jean Genet’s Deathwatch, as translated by David Rudkin, now playing at The Print Room at the Coronet. One says revival, but actually this is the first time the revised version of the play has been performed in London. When Genet died, extensive reworkings of this, his first play, were discovered and the original text, Haute Surveillance, was amended to reflect these reworkings.
Rudkin, who originally translated Genet’s play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987, has returned to the text and come to grips with Genet’s re-worked material. He says in the programme:
Now with a prologue and a coda, and some startling new material, an overall tighter rhythm and some significant cutting, particularly towards the end, Genet’s final version is a piece quite different from the one we have known til now. I have reworked my translation to accord with that.
Certainly, Rudkin’s translation feels modern and relatable. The situation might be bizarre, and the characters may engage in heightened activities – speech, silence and physicality – but there is a visceral sense of reality about everything that happens. Even the abstract or surreal moments do not alienate.
Deathwatch does raise the question about whether some plays only really appeal to one sex. Genet’s references to women in the text are not very pleasant – Green-Eyes’s wife is considered a prize to be fought over, to die for, by each of the men, but not because of her qualities as a person – because she is Green-Eyes’ woman. Lefranc writes letters full of rhetorical flushes in a kind of reverse Cyrano style, his intention being to captivate her attention rather than pass on greetings from Green-Eyes. Maurice seems to want to be Green-Eyes’ woman, but he is obsessed with the tattoo image of her on Green-Eyes’ chest.
Alexander introduces a new female presence, by gender-blind casting the role of The Watch, a character that is part prison guard and part lurking, observant, separate entity. But there is nothing female about the performance.
No, this is a very particular man’s world and the point of Genet’s play seems to be to explore specific male issues about identity, intimacy and loyalty, in a framework of enforced oppression and simmering violence. The prison environment involves a different “moral” code than the one which prevails in the free world.
Snowball and Green-Eyes are the Top Dogs in this prison; both big men, both murderers, both wary of each other but also drawn to each other. Snowball never appears, so the impression we have of him depends upon what the incarcerated trio say – and, of course, that changes, depending on who is speaking and what the mood is.
Most importantly, Green-Eyes respects Snowball – Green-Eyes bears the burden of keeping his cell quiet and happy and respects Snowball for doing that for the entire prion. Or so it seems.
But boredom and resentment are easy bedfellows in such a quiet, unchanging world. Maurice irritates constantly, thinking to ingratiate himself, to be in the inner circle of Green-Eyes’ care. Lefranc tries different tactics, but his aim is essentially the same. Despite being warned off by both Maurice and Green-Eyes, he still dons Green Eyes’ jacket at one point. Maurice clocks this but keeps quiet. This time.
The three characters morph and change, almost like little boys in a playground. One moment Maurice is fey and seductive, thinking his beauty will protect him, ensure him safe passage; the next he is snarling and abrupt, calling others to account.
Green-Eyes is mercurial. Stock still, silent, perplexed; casually violent; brutally indifferent; anxiously fretting; resignedly thinking about death; reliving his crimes. Lefranc tries to be friends to both his cell mates at different times but his motives vacillate obstinately.
They could be squabbling about marbles and the pretty girl down the road. Except, the hint of violence, past, present and future, including sexual violence, is ever present.
Lee Newby’s design underlines this. The audience cannot escape the notion that they are watching, and therefore complicit, in the action in the cage. The violence, the degradation, the sinking humanity of these characters spurs us on, to keep watching – much like a champion wounding a gladiator in a Roman arena would have spurred on the watching hoping-for-blood crowd.
Genet had been to jail, had experienced the horrors it offered first hand. By focussing on what the artificial world of the all-male prison does to its inmates, Genet is holding up a mirror to the onlookers, questioning their silence, their ambivalence to what happens there.
This effect is compounded by the quite superb lighting from David Plater. He uses a range of lights of create interesting effects, all of which add to the theatricality of the experience and sometimes create their own: there is a section where Green-Eyes is bathed in strobe lighting which is startlingly effective. Plater uses shadows well too – the final image of Green-Eyes, his arms stretched across the top of the bars of the prison cell, suggests a crucifixion scene, the shadows adding to the notion. Outside the cell there are more familiar cabaret spotlights at work. Voyeurism is the spectrum in which Plater’s lights flicker and flash and focus.
Joseph Quinn does excellent work as Maurice, although he accentuates the fey side of the character slightly too much. He is best in the razor sharp moods swings which define the character, as he constantly assesses and reassesses the best move to make. He is wholly convincing as an acolyte of Green-Eyes (Tom Varey) and several times he and Varey startle by the level of intimacy, sudden, warm, sensual, they create. Despite an unattractive persona, Quinn makes you feel for Maurice and the predicament he is in.
Varey makes Green-Eyes a noble beast – more panther than hyena. He stalks and saunters, with occasional stops for awkward, unexpected growls. But there is an undeniable sheen of magnificence to his Green-Eyes which is repellent and captivating in equal measure. He cavorts among the prison bars with practised ease and the sense of his powerful physical self makes his credentials as a violent murderer ring with authenticity. There may be only one bed in the cell, but it is clear enough that no one sleeps there without Green-Eyes’ approval.
Less successful is Danny Lee Wynter as Lefranc, possibly because the role as written does not afford the clearest of characterisation paths. Lefranc’s is the most intangible spirit and the one that needs most shading from the actor. Wynter was not convincing as a partner in misery for Green-Eyes, although his scenes of sniping and quarrelling with Maurice were much more impressive than the more reflective, insular scenes. He does not transmit the true horror of his final decisive action (where Quinn does) but the aftermath, as the cogs re-align, is more successful.
This is a difficult play to enjoy but Alexander has provided a contemporary take which is involving and startling. Despite being the progenitor for endless prison dramas, Deathwatch is a sombre, masculine and intellectual affair. By rooting it in performance mode, Alexander unleashes different beasts into the circus which activates the audience’s consciousness. One leaves not thinking just about the three characters but how each of us is responsible for their suffering and the suffering of anyone in prison.