Jean Genet’s one act play about three prisoners, Green Eyes, Lefranc and Maurice

Venue: The Drama Barn
Run: 3rd – 6th May
Produced: Alexandra Little
Directed: Joseph Williams
Rating: ***

To kickstart the Summer term at the barn, we have a piece of intense, existentialist theatre. Deathwatch is Jean Genet’s one act play about three prisoners, LeFranc and Maurice, who are minor criminals and Green Eyes, who has murdered a woman and is going to be guillotined. The dialogue follows the men around their confined, windowless cell, staged in one of the barn’s dark corners, barefoot and with no props, except a vitrine, a letter and 2 cigarettes. The small audience feel similarly restricted in their makeshift seats.

It’s a dark, morose hour of absurdist drama, and not necessarily a bad one. The portrayal of confinement distorting the moral compass of the cell, and the psychological decline that ensued was effective. Genet’s simple metaphor of Green Eyes’ illiteracy symbolising their captivity (for whom reading a letter from ‘his girl’ would be the greatest freedom), was depicted sensitively.

The passive aggressive language and provocative, intimate moments were intermittently exchanged between two of the actors, rather than all three. Simple yet clever ‘tripod’ like stage direction achieved this well, having one actor on the periphery whilst the other two engaged.

This play is supposed to be funny too, and the actors (especially Pete Watts as Green Eyes) handled the witty, macabre humour well with lines such as “I’m the Post Office” (Lefranc, played by Ed Riley), puncturing the tension with good timing.

However, I didn’t think they were criminals, and I certainly didn’t feel threatened; the severity of the play definitely came from the staging and dense dialogue. Perhaps the proximity portrayed between the men is best depicted through their body language towards each other, and not the literal, physical space they find themselves in. It definitely felt cramped, but just not threatening enough; I wanted to feel a visceral reaction to the words ‘nigga’ and Green Eyes spitting in the vitrine, but the tension was just never quite sufficient. Indeed, it would have helped if Green Eyes power hadn’t been undermined with his failed attempt to light a cigarette.

The most intense moments were the homosexual ones, between Green Eyes and Maurice, and they added an interesting, profound layer to the relationships between the men. Whilst the dialogue centred around who was ‘gonna get Green Eyes’ girl’, the attention of Maurice’s true desires appeared to be for Green Eyes himself. Nick Armfield sustained strong, intimate moments of head-to-head whispering with Watts, portraying the mens’ longing for physical contact, and sensitivity to gentle touch.

More shape to the character development and greater use of silence throughout could have mounted the tension needed for this production to have a real kick, especially at the end, but all in all strong, well-versed performances carried this one act ensemble piece along.

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