Review: Deathwatch Shows Men Imprisoned By Their Desires

Deathwatch, Print Room at the Coronet ★★★☆☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 30 months ago
Review: Deathwatch Shows Men Imprisoned By Their Desires Deathwatch, Print Room at the Coronet 3
Tom Varey, Danny Lee Wynter and Joseph Quinn in Deathwatch. Photo: Marc Brenner.

Jean Genet's first play Deathwatch is a strangely dreamlike prison drama that subverts conventional morality. David Rudkin’s beautifully concise translation is a revised version of the one he did for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1987 (now based on Genet’s posthumously published reworking of the play). It exerts the tightly insidious grip of a forbidden fantasy.

Three men are locked up together in a cell. Awaiting execution by guillotine (‘the slicer’) for murdering a woman, Green-Eyes is cock of the roost here, revelling in the status that his ultimate crime has given him – though ‘the real governor’ of this prison-fort is the unseen mobster Snowball. The other two petty criminals vie for Green-Eyes’ attention. The jealous Lefranc is due to be released soon, but he lusts after his alpha-male position, while ‘best-looking kid in the prison’ Maurice curries favour by paying court. Cooped up in their small cage the rivalry intensifies.

Genet himself spent time in prison as a young man so he writes from some experience. Like his best-known play The Maids (currently playing at Trafalgar Studios), Deathwatch examines the power-play between three characters in close quarters, shifting fluidly between reality and fantasy with a murderous edge, with the focus here on the competitive masculine psyche. In this transgressive hierarchical world, which crackles with homoerotic tension, it seems being a ‘real man’ means being prepared to break any rules with which society constrains behaviour to give the illusion of total freedom.

Geraldine Alexander’s stylish 75-minute production emphasises the trope of performance and the power of imagination, with visionary re-enactments of Green-Eyes’ dancing with his mistress and killing the prostitute, and the inmates actually emerging through the bars of the cell at one point. But there could be more feeling of danger and violence.

Rather than conveying a sense of claustrophobic surveillance, this feels more like an existential cabaret, with a drum majorette opening and closing the show on Lee Newby’s circus-like set, with sawdust strewn around the cage backed by plush red curtains. David Plater’s dramatic multi-coloured lighting puts figures in isolated spotlight in dream sequences, while Simon Slater’s off-kilter music has a disturbing restlessness.

Tom Varey gives Green-Eyes a cocky, muscular presence, swinging up onto the top bars or strutting around with the aggressive energy of a pent-up cage-fighter. Danny Lee Wynter’s Lefranc is a brooding schemer fascinated by the power that brutality apparently brings, contrasted with Joseph Quinn’s provocatively theatrical Maurice who stirs things up. And Emma Naomi plays The Watch and MC as well as the envisioned, silent women who don’t get a say in a deviant male environment that is hard to engage with.

Deathwatch is on at the Print Room at the Coronet, 103 Notting Hill Gate, W11 3LB until 7 May. Tickets are £20—£32. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 15 April 2016