By Jean Genet
Death And The Maiden
A criminal hardman awaits execution by guillotine for murder locked up in a cell with two petty criminals who, in spite of everything, have their lives ahead of them. Or so they think ...
Directed by Geraldine Alexander, Deathwatch has a set designed by Lee Newby with the feel variously of a circus ring, musical box, birdcage and cage fight venue.
This dream-like mix of the artificial, the violent and the abstract is heightened by a ringmaster/complicit prison guard figure (Naomi Frederick) - known as The Watch.
Green Eyes (Tom Varey) towers above his two cell companions in strength and audacity, but only he awaits the death sentence for the gruesome murder of a young woman during sexual intercourse. Illiterate, he depends on another to pen his letters to his girlfriend.
LeFranc (Danny Lee Wynter) acts as his secretary, reading out and writing letters for him while teenager Maurice (Joseph Quinn) hovers round the two, engaged in a feud with LeFranc while eroticizing Green-Eyes.
From their cell, they can hear the clink of the prison keys and the sound of "the slicer" as it ends the life of another prisoner.
It's a well-paced, carefully choreographed production with evocative lighting by David Plater and sound by Simon Slater.
Jean Genet wrote the first version of Deathwatch under the title Pour La Belle in 1942 while jailed in Fresnes prison. Indeed this production of the play is accompanied by an exhibition of Brixton prisoners' art.
But at the time of writing, France was under Nazi occupation. Fresnes prison contained petty thieves like Genet but also resistance fighters, whether Communists or those with more right wing sympathies, many of whom were murdered by the Nazis or the Vichy regime French militia.
Genet's own Trotskyite communist lover was to die on the barricades in 1944 at the hands of the militia while Genet flirted with the aesthetics of fascism.
In this tangle, the play eventually became Haute Surveillance, although by the 1960s Genet was inclined to dismiss it. However in 1985, a year before his death and having taken up the causes of the Black Panthers and the Palestinians, he cut and reworked it. This is the version David Rudkin has now translated as Deathwatch.
And, while not knowing the original, it feels like a faithful translation. Not only conveying the murky intense experience of three men in a prison cell power play but something more.
What came over to TLT and her own cellmate (and we're not sure whether it was an experience we enjoyed) were the complications of Genet's life as criminal and writer emeshed in dangerous criminal, political and literary associations.
Indeed, while the name Snowball is that of a black prisoner also under sentence of death and kingpin equal to Green-Eyes on the jail block, TLT immediately thought of Animal Farm and the amalgam of Trotsky and Lenin in a character in George Orwell's book with the same name.
Could it be that the nickname Snowball was making the rounds?! It also fits in with the themes of betrayal, power yet mistrust, certain death - and surveillance - in the play.
Maybe this immersion in imminent execution, a state punishment then in both France and the USSR, still strikes true - a horrible inevitable real-life ritual, but it is a difficult play to love. Yet the fetishism of murder, eroticism, sexual ambiguity and sadism transformed into sacrament feels horribly accurate. An amber/green light for a visceral evening.