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Deathwatch review at the Print Room, London – ‘fetid dreaminess’

Death Watch PROD Danny Lee Wynter and Joseph Quinn in Deathwatch at the Print Room. Photo: Marc Brenner Danny Lee Wynter and Joseph Quinn in Deathwatch at the Print Room. Photo: Marc Brenner
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There’s a fetid dreaminess to this production, an expressionistic hyper-reality to its sawdust-strewn set – a cage of a prison cell in a circus ring – and its lighting. It feels like Baz Luhrmann via David Lynch.

Cellmates pretty boy Maurice (Joseph Quinn) and scheming liar Lefranc (Danny Lee Wynter) snipe at each other as they vie for the attention of murderer Green-Eyes (Tom Varey), as he awaits the guillotine. They’re intoxicated by the freedom they see in his actions.

This staging of Deathwatch, Jean Genet’s first play, follows on the heels of Jamie Lloyd’s revival of arguably the French dramatist’s most famous work, The Maids. Both were written in 1947, and both live in the realm of dark psychological fantasy.

Here, Genet (as channelled by David Rudkin in a newly revised version of his dankly lyrical 1987 translation of the play for the RSC) turns prison into an existential space. The characters are trapped by their own desires, observed only by The Watch (Emma Naomi) and us. There are shades of Sartre’s No Exit.

Geraldine Alexander, directing at The Print Room for a second time after self-penned Amygdala in 2013, softens Genet’s anti-hero fetishisation by amping up the surrealism. And Quinn, Lee Wynter and Varey raise the tension, stalking each other almost lasciviously.

But Deathwatch ends up encircling itself, re-treading the same dramatic ground until it feels worn out. The atmosphere is great but somehow inert. This production evocatively portrays prison as a circus for our entertainment, but the play gets stuck.

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Evocative and well-acted revival of Genet’s flawed first play