Review – Deathwatch – Print Room

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It’s a damned good time to get caught up with you queer culture – Jean Genet has two plays on right now, and Deathwatch, which is getting its first major revival in thirty years, is a far better insight into Genet’s mind than the blowsy version of The Maids that’s being presented at Trafalgar Studios. It was my first visit to The Print Room’s new location (much closer to the Notting Hill Gate tube than their previous location had been to its transport), but as a fan of this subculture (and a member) I wanted to see this play live.

I know I’ve seen a pile of films set in prison, but none of them felt anywhere near as real as Deathwatch did, with seventy minutes used to compress years and years of resentment and silences into one non-stop sensory barrage that felt to me more like a rollercoaster ride than the silence and thoughtfulness I associate with standing by someone’s deathbed. Three convicts are locked together in a small cell, their relationships to each other – both connections (based on affection) and hierarchy (based on physical strength and aggression) painfully on display to us. The effect is heightened by the setting, which is circus-like – the cage the play takes place in sat in front of a big top as if we were watching caged tiger, an effect heighted by the decision to clothe the fourth member of the troupe as a ringmaster and then as a tightrope walker. The story, such as it is, seems to be about Green Eyes (Tom Varey) dealing with his impending execution by reliving the psychological truth of the murder he committed while his cell mates Lefranc (Danny Lee Wynter) and Maurice (Joseph Quinn) watch in fascination; but even that story, and their response to it, is all a part of the never ending struggle for dominance within the prison.

Each of the actors take advantage of their varied physiques to create vivid characters whose conflict sucks you in. Clearly Maurice is the weakest – his reliance on touch and seductiveness serving where being able to beat someone up is not possible. Green Eyes is masculine and beautiful, quick to anger and yet desirable to both of the other men … how could they not want to please him? This leaves Lefranc: hulking but desperate for approval from Green Eyes, absolutely despising Maurice, who knows exactly how to wind up him.

In some ways this play could be set in a dorm room or an army barracks, but it’s the clinging air of being close to death and unable to escape that makes this play so intense – that and the fine performances by the three lead actors. I consider it well worth my time and recommend it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 16th, 2016. It continues through May 7th.)

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