FringeReview UK 2016
David Rudkin’s revised translation of Genet’s first play, incorporating Genet’s last thoughts, reveals a more disturbed, more visceral and even truer vision than we could have guessed. Geraldine Alexander paces it like a Racine tragedy – exactly what Genet wished.
This short first play by Jean Genet is enjoying a short run at the Coronet’s Print Room, directed by Geraldine Alexander leading a cast of four. Dating from 1947 in a revised translation by David Rudkin it incorporates changes Genet made in 1985 shortly before his death. These are significant, involving a new prologue, much explicit material and a telescoped ending.
The French title Haute Surveillance is more neutral, but the play isn’t. We start with a cage inset on a floor of earth and straw. Two men vie for the favours of the admired Green-Eyes, head destined for ‘the slicer’ for rape and murder. One is due for release. This seems immutable. It isn’t, quite.
Genet is enjoying exposure with The Maids at the Trafalgar Studios. This earlier play packs in as much matter in an essentially homoerotic love-triangle (and gendered diametrically opposite The Maids then) though with Emma Naomi acting as both The Watch and an evanescent dream of condemned Green-Eyes’ girl. Referred to as ‘him’ when a warder, Naomi’s presence, striking in major-domo or warder’s attire as well as a dress, might vitiate the tenebrous all-male fraternity; it scarcely matters. Naomi manages a brief, unruffled implacability.
Left by his mother to the Public Assistance at two, Genet’s creative response was to turn to crime and glory in his sexuality. His prison spell inspired his first novel and this inversion of normative rules, where a murderer has status and Snowball the black godfather is Green-Eyes’ only superior, favouring Green-Eyes with cigarettes through the approving warder. Léfranc, or Jules, played broodingly by Danny Lee Wynter, is due for release, but when the play opens he’s busy strangling openly gay Maurice (Joseph Quinn) on the floor.
Perched on a stool well above them Green-Eyes – clenched Tom Varey – orates praise for Snowball: ‘if I pass beneath the slicer, I know he’s following me there too’. Above him ‘a Big Beast, who bears the weight for all the world.’ This is Genet’s classical French, worthy of Racine and the establishment. It just happens to be the prose Genet excels in. He puts it to every inversion of its implied values including Green-Eyes’ illiteracy, a fact made much of when others read his girl’s letters to him inventively. There’s a tempo to adjust to – Racine doesn’t thrive in the UK, though Genet does despite the ritual procession: his themes speak the magnificent filth of our condition.
The key tensions are switchbacks of power between Léfranc and Maurice, finally judged by Green-Eyes, who’s also taunted with illiteracy. Even after Green-Eyes stops Léfranc strangling Maurice, the latter’s all provocation (he’s directed to drawl ‘Green-Eyes’). The two mock each other, or play with who’ll sleep with Green-Eyes ‘ girl.
Green-Eyes self-reveals in self-contradiction he was born to kill: ‘Now it’s your turn. One of you will kill my woman… what I wanted to do was to run time backwards.. To make my way back to air I could breathe…’ He basks in memories of the murdered girl mesmerised by his sprig of lilac-blossom. Antinomies of taunt and caress, push and purring show Green-Eyes’ flexing of circumstance, including a power over literate men. He contemptuously refuses to accept even the extremes of what others might do as an offering to him. Concluding rituals ensure a ferociously controlled climax, under the Judas-hole peep of the warder.
Tom Varey ripples authority and scorn as well as fleeting tenderness with wonderment at his condition. Joseph Quinn’s sibilant, tarty provocativeness jerks the action back and forth with a phantom toss of his now shorn locks. Danny Lee Wynter’s simmering furies are barely kept in check, but Varey has the drop on all such. Geraldine Alexander paces this as deliberately as Genet would wish. Lee Newby’s cage design on straw fits this vision – allowing characters to occasionally slip their bars in memory passages. It contains the paced fury in a chiselled classic manner worthy of a zoo in Versailles.