The Print Room Spring 2016
Like his all-female play The Maids, Jean Genet's 1947 Deathwatch is a study in power and sexuality among three characters, in this case male prisoners sharing a cell (a fourth actor plays some small walk-on roles).
But unlike The Maids, which largely demonstrates through action the fluid relationship among its three, Deathwatch has the characters talk about it at length, analysing and philosophising on the nature of power, desire, free will and fate.
They don't reach many definitive conclusions, which gives their talk a circular quality that can make it pretty heavy going, and Deathwatch may be one of the longest 75 minutes you spend in a theatre.
The men live in a hierarchy built on the seriousness of their crimes – one of the things that attracted social critics like Sartre to this play was the suggestion that a greater criminal could be a greater man – along with their sexuality and the others' need for them.
At the top of the pile, Green-Eyes has physical beauty, the status of a murderer among thieves, the special aura of being condemned to death, and the reflected glory of being a reputed friend of the never-seen almost mythic convict kingpin Snowball.
Hardman Lefranc draws some power from his threats of violence and from the fact that he can read and write, which makes Green-Eyes need him, but he depends on Green-Eyes for reflected glory and on the weakling Maurice to have someone to bully.
Maurice is at the bottom of the pecking order, but he too has beauty and is adept at small passive-aggressive attacks that can sting if not severely wound.
Until a moment of violence near the end, if anything can be said to happen during the play, it is Lefranc positioning himself to move up when Green-Eyes is executed, setting up conversations that will display and affirm his power.
Green-Eyes is inclined to withdraw into his own solitary musings on death, but he is repeatedly drawn into the discussions, as much to re-affirm his dominance as to have much to say, while Maurice generally hovers around the edges, goading the others on.
It is a very, very static play, and a very, very talky one. Among playwrights, only Shaw consistently, and a few other writers occasionally, have been able to make the action-less discussion of ideas theatrically alive.
Here too much of the talk almost inevitably goes nowhere for it to keep a firm hold on our attention while, unlike in The Maids, the power hierarchy in Deathwatch is very limited in its fluidity, removing that potential source of dramatic tension.
Director Geraldine Alexander seems to have given each of her actors a single note to play, with very little scope for development or variation.
Tom Varey's Green-Eyes wants to be left alone to philosophise internally and resents being drawn into Lefranc's games. Donny Lee Wynter plays Lefranc as always pushing at the others, grasping at more psychological territory on which to build his power, while Joseph Quinn's Maurice is the sly weakling who knows he will lose every battle but hopes to get in a few ego-boosting blows before he does.
David Rudkin's new translation makes the occasional slip ('You think I've not sussed?') but largely captures Genet's blend of masculine crudity and self-conscious attempts to sound profound, a mixed blessing since it is lines like 'At my feet already there's a new-dug grave' and 'Perhaps there is someone else, a Big Beast, big above them all, who bears the weight for all the world' that keep bogging the play down and making it such a heavy slog.
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Review - Deathwatch - Print Room 2016