views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Roundhouse
12th May 2013


Image from Deathwatch

Photography supplied by BÉZNĂ Theatre

What's this? An actor as a sweaty, short, sleazy prison guard using a chair to rather graphically represent the sexual abuse of a prisoner to completion? It must be a Genet play. And this isn't just any Genet play, it's his earliest, volatile and certainly one of his most raw. BÉZNĂ Theatre, in their attempt to restage and unearth forgotten plays (and despite a Leonard Nimoy film and Sean Bean 80s revival, this is definitely lesser known), have produced a visceral, deeply satisfying and beguiling work.

Taking the criticism of idolatry inherent in Milton's Paradise Lost and undoubtedly Genet's own experiences as a prisoner and prostitute, the piece is an exploration of ideas rather than plot. It can be simply boiled down to two petty crooks, Maurice (Peter Clements) and Lefranc (Jackson Milner) fighting for the affections of prison king Green Eyes (Hugh John) while denouncing the ubiquitous but unrepresented Snowball, the challenger to Green Eyes' authority.

But it is much more than three mouthpieces for an assemblage of ideas on worship, personal identity, institutionalisation and even fame - or infamy. There's something timely about Lefranc's obsession with killers, taking the cues of his feral act from clippings stashed in his cell. It's the ghoulish conclusion of the public's obsession with Tia Sharpe's killer Stuart Hazell 60 years prior to Charlie Brooker, et al. And by picking Bernard Frechtman's translation above others, the flowery (sometimes literally so) and frequently obtuse language seems much closer to Genet's original intent and more satisfactory for it.

Sinziana Koenig did the only thing she could when confronted with the Dorfman Hub of the Roundhouse - theatre in the round. And whether this was by design or a happy accident, the exposed brick and harsh lighting combined with high arches and winding corridors give a real sense of place. Robin Soutar's lighting is an intense brightness, like the unremitting gaze of Green Eyes' adoring fans from across the prison, that dim as the action shifts to memories.

And the lighting's not the only thing that is concentrated and all-consuming. Key to theatre in the round is obviously movement, and here Koenig rarely allows the actors to let up. They march around their space like fish in a tiny tank, bickering, physically fighting, flirting, all under the ever-loosening spell of a commanding John as Green Eyes. He's confident and forthright, but can turn on a dime to delusion or fury.

Image from Deathwatch

Photography supplied by BÉZNĂ Theatre

In love with him is the preening, camp and mischievous Maurice. There's something indefinable in Clements' performance which raises him above the screeching, catty and cliched homosexual despite putting in a performance akin to Rocky Horror's Frank N Furter transported to HBO crime drama Oz. He sashays about in his tiny kimono, a few clothes being some of the last vestiges of the trio's identity in the outside world, the importance attached to them provoking many arguments. He's compelling and his Puckish nature but viper tongue ensures he generates a lot of laughs.

And there are laughs, but as usual with Genet, it's pitch black gallows humour. Or, in this case, guillotine humour. Christopher Wickenden's Guard is, at first glance, out of place with his large glasses, weedy moustache and constant perspiration. But Genet loves a grotesque - evidenced by Madame in The Maids - and he is as vile as they come, fantastically over-the-top and seedy. An oppressor that is the visual opposite of the beautiful Maurice, handsome Green Eyes and rough, bestial, but good-looking Lefranc. Animalistic Milner certainly is, spending his time hunched, part Gollum, part Wolverine, all mad eyes and wild hair until he begins to unravel. Then, identities compromised and worship apparently lost, they dig deep to give layer upon layer to their performance.

One puzzle on reading the programme was the need for three fight directors. But that's quickly answered in the opening. The need for dominance between Maurice and Lefranc necessitates a lot of violence, the bloodshed a symbolic sacrifice to Green Eyes. Each character's distinctive style wins out - Lefranc all roaring and choking, Maurice graceful and balletic like something from West Side Story.

The only real problem I have with Deathwatch is its transient nature. Staged as part of the Accidental Festival for one sell-out performance only, few others will have had the chance to witness this shocking and intellectual drama. BÉZNĂ are making an appearance at the Camden Fringe with Koenig's own work, titled Waste, but to never revisit this certainly would be.

Deathwatch was performed on 12th May 2013 at the Roundhouse, as part of the Accidental Festival.

Nearest tube station: Chalk Farm (Northern)

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