Jean Genet’s Deathwatch previews from this evening. Geraldine Alexander spares some time to talk about directing Genet’s “first and last play”.


Genet is a well-known playwright, perhaps best known for The Maids, but there hasn’t been a major production of Deathwatch since the RSC’s in 1987. Why did you and Anda decide to revive it?

It’s an important and prescient play, and far too rarely performed. Almost seventy years have passed since Genet’s first version in 1947. Anda and I are both struck by how very contemporary it is, how very human, in all of its strangeness. That is the mark of great literature of course, that it continues to hit the present with force. As part of our preparation we visited Brixton prison and also Fresnes prison in France. We were very affected by those visits, and they seemed to reaffirm the play’s importance. And although I have been careful not to let the life of Genet overawe my reading of the play, the links between Deathwatch and Genet’s early history of imprisonment are very intriguing. But the simple answer is that it’s a story that we both strongly felt was worth telling.  


You’re not only using a new translation, but also a new version of the play. Why is that?

I discovered the new version shortly before we began rehearsals. Deathwatch was revisited by Genet a year before his death and it is this final version that he wanted to leave for posterity. As a writer myself, I am fascinated by this late revision and the arc it creates in his writing. Deathwatch is his first play, and it is also his last.


Is this new version very different?

Genet made a number of significant changes in this final text, which we are presenting to UK audiences for the first time. Importantly, the play that Genet left us at the end of his life has a new opening and closing, which significantly expand the context. This gave me and my creative team — designer Lee Newby, lighting designer David Plater and composer Simon Slater – a very exciting new problem to solve. And solving it has been surprisingly liberating.


Speaking of the creative team, how important have your collaborators’ contributions been to the telling of the story?

Invaluable. Discovering how to tell the story has been a truly collaborative process. With the playwright David Rudkin, who has provided the revised translation, we have worked hard to create the right place for the actors — and the audience. I don’t want to give too much away, but the staging has been key to the production. Lee has done a brilliant job in creating a space that is at once abstract and yet also very real. Deathwatch has a distinct, if unexpected, musicality. Simon has responded to this wonderfully with his score. David Plater’s remarkable response to the challenges of lighting the production will be appreciated by audiences once the set is revealed to them.


And a last word for audiences before this evening’s first preview?  

Over the last few months I have become very intimate with both Deathwatch and the life of Genet. The two are inextricable and there are many events in Genet’s life that seem to assist the telling of Deathwatch. However, as I just mentioned, I have been conscious of not being too reverent of Genet, in order to let his play speak for itself. For a director the time of the first preview is also a time of letting go. The writer, the actors, the creative team have made this production for the audience, so you are crucial to its development. I hope we have done it justice.