Continental absurdism, psychosis, and live pissing are the order of the day in the Barn’s first offering of the summer; Jean Genet’s Deathwatch. This existentialist piece peers voyeuristically into a dark prison cell, where three men – the dignified Lefranc (Edd Riley), the languid Maurice (Nick Armfield) and their “leader”, the violent Green-Eyes (Pete Watts) – face off against each other in a war of words that leaps from the scribbles of a love letter to the gift of a pair of cigarettes. Over the course of a tense hour, we witness the unravelling of the prison’s psychosexual power structures as an ambiguous salvation edges closer for two of the men; for Lefranc, an imminent release, and for Green-Eyes, a turn on the guillotine.
Director Joe Williams’s risk of confining the action to an alcove near the back of the barn, while arranging the audience uncomfortably close to the actors, pays dividends. Bathed in bleak lighting, the moments of sexual tension and horrific violence achieve an intensity that would be lost on a larger stage, and for a play that so heavily echoes a certain work by Sartre, it’s apt that the performance space includes a few conveniently-placed exit signs, amid a filth-ridden toilet and an unmade bed.
Given the morally and psychologically complex material, the cast deliver excellent performances. Edd Riley’s Lefranc is brilliantly understated, a man pointlessly maintaining a tucked-in shirt and well-spoken demeanour, unaware of how easily his delusions of dignity are manipulated and used against him by his cellmates and the ominous, if worryingly generous prison guard (Rhys Hayes).
Portraying Lefranc’s rival is Nick Armfield, who instantly captures the audience’s attention with a seething intensity that barely masks his unquenchable desire for Green-Eyes. Unlike Riley’s prim and often proper posture, Armfield slumps himself over the bed and the floor, in a state of both submission and seduction, echoing the sadomasochistic relationship he shares with the alpha male of the group.
Speaking of which, Pete Watts’s portrayal of Green-Eyes is by turns psychotic, unsettling, and funny. Watts deftly conveys Green-Eyes’ disturbing ability to feign innocence and desire, and while at times edges towards parody with a gravel-like tone to his voice, he pulls off most of the production’s physical and vocal heavy lifting with ease, effortlessly fusing Green Eyes’ rabid violence and aggressive sexuality.
Despite the superb performances, it is however, the nature of the “theatre of the absurd” that narrative progress is often eschewed in favour of observation and contemplation, and as a result, the play can seem a little static and lacking a sense of direction, with one argument often indistinguishable from another. While it could be argued that this is the whole point of Genet’s play, it is unlikely to convince those left unconverted by Beckett, Sartre, and other evangelists of existentialist theatre. Nevertheless, William’s innovative direction, alongside an excellent cast, means I can recommend Deathwatch to more than that most clichéd of review clichés, the “fans of the genre”.