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The 'terrifying genius' of the man Bowie called Jean Genie

Actor Tom Varey talks about Jean Genet's Deathwatch, which is getting its first major revival in nearly 30 years, at the Print Room in Notting Hill

Tom Varey and Danny Lee Wynter in rehearsal for Deathwatch at the Print Room(Image: Marc Brenner)

Jean Genet - or Jean Genie as he's better known to legions of David Bowie fans - is enjoying something of a moment in the spotlight.

As well as the publicity from the untimely death of Bowie , who was reportedly a big fan, Genet's seminal work The Maids has been enjoying a successful run at London's Trafalgar Studios.

Now the Print Room in Notting Hill is resurrecting the French dramatist's debut play Deathwatch in what it says will be the first major revival in almost 30 years.

For Tom Varey, who appears as PC Stuart O'Connell in hit TV drama No Offence, that means switching sides of the criminal justice system to play Green-Eyes, a charismatic convict awaiting his fate.

Emma Naomi in rehearsals for Deathwatch at the Print Room(Image: Marc Brenner)

Dangerous rivalries are at play as fellow inmates Lefranc (Danny Lee Wynter) and Maurice (Joseph Quinn) compete for the attention of the man Varey describes as the "king of the wing", under the eyes of The Watch (Emma Naomi).

So why, despite Genet's enduring popularity, is it so long since Deathwatch last saw the light of day?

'It's so rarely performed because it's terrifying'

"I think it's because it's terrifying. I don't know if any one of us had a clue what was motivating these characters and what was going through their heads for some time," says Varey.

"Genet was such a specialist at writing these dark characters because he spent a lot of time going in and out of prison.

"To get into that mindset is very difficult and I imagine it puts a lot of people off attempting to stage the play."

The cast of Deathwatch at the Print Room(Image: Marc Brenner)

For Varey and his fellow cast members getting into that mindset meant a trip to Brixton Prison to meet the inmates and get a feeling for the uncanny atmosphere he says it is impossible to explain.

"It was such a strange experience walking in and knowing these people can't leave, because we take for granted our freedom," he said.

"We went into one of the wings and I don't know whether it was just me projecting emotions, but I felt scared, even though there were lots of people around.

'Prisoners aren't bad people - just people who've done bad things'

"The prisoners aren't bad people; they're just people who've done bad things. We spoke to one prisoner who is a big fan of Genet. He was incredibly intelligent. I could have listened to him all day, and he said he really admired Deathwatch."

Although it's a prison play, Varey says Genet's grip on the dynamics of male relationships - albeit in extreme circumstances in this case - gives it universal resonance.

Coupled with the "darkly poetic" writing of the "genius" Genet, translated in this instance by David Rudkin, he says it makes for an incredibly powerful experience.

Fans of No Offence and The Village, in which he played Bert Middleton, can expect to see a new side to Varey in Deathwatch.

"I tend to play either very nice, well-behaved boys or absolute nutters. Playing a villain's really fun but it's definitely more tiring," he says.

"I enjoyed playing a cop in No Offence. I found people looked at me differently in uniform, especially when they couldn't see the cameras, which was kind of cool."

  • Deathwatch, directed by Geraldine Alexander, is at the Print Room at The Coronet, 103 Notting Hill Gate, from April 11 to May 7. For tickets, starting at £10, call the box office on 020 3642 6606 or visit the Print Room website .
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