Jean Genet was the archetypal outsider playwright. Immersed in the criminal underworld from an early age, he was imprisoned repeatedly until, in 1949, the intervention of Cocteau, Picasso and Sartre to have his latest conviction set aside enabled him to turn to a career in the arts and left wing politics. He wrote a series of novels and plays that are dark and challenging. Deathwatch, written in 1947, is set in a prison cell where there are three prisoners, one of them a convicted murderer who is about to face the guillotine. The short play is entirely concerned with the interaction of the three young men, apart from the brief intervention of a shadowy figure called ‘the watch’.
In his accompanying note Genet says “The entire play is to unfold as in a dream. The actors must aim for heavy gestures. No clever lighting”. This production is set in a cage that sits inside what looks like a circus ring – indeed, in her final appearance ‘the watch’ looks like a circus ringmaster. There is certainly a dream-like atmosphere to the repetitive elliptical conversations of the three actors. Maurice and Lefranc compete for the attention of the murderer Green-Eyes but their admiration of Green-Eyes is sometimes undercut by an edge of hostility as they talk about another prisoner, Snowball, the ‘big beast of the fortress”. There is a relentless atmosphere of impending disaster, over and above the threat of the guillotine that hangs over Green-Eyes. The three young actors who play the prisoners are excellent. The ebb and flow of their relationships as they veer between a sort of erotic attraction and an increasing sense of violent threat keeps the atmosphere very taut and the denouement is suitably horrifying.
For all the commitment of the three principals, the bold design by Lee Newby and inventive direction of Geraldine Alexander this is not a play that delivers what it seems to promise. Genet’s world view is obscure and bleak and this play doesn’t transcend the limitations of such a cold and brutal sensibility. See it if you want to understand more about Genet and his place in twentieth century theatre but don’t expect to come out feeling optimistic about the human condition.