THE GOLDEN THUG written and directed by Edward Roy, with Andrew Hachey, Ralph Small, Maria Vacratsis, Dan Watson and William Webster. Presented by Topological and Buddies, at Buddies (12 Alexander). Previews from Tuesday (April 4), opens April 6 and runs to April 16, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15-$29, Sunday pwyc. 416-975-8555. Rating: NNNNN
Thief, jailbird, social outcast, unabashedly queer even by today's standards, Jean Genet was one of the shooting stars of 20th-century French literature.
Ever the reprobate, he nevertheless numbered among his acquaintances Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre.
We glimpse the various aspects of this complex man in Edward Roy's The Golden Thug, set in a sleazy Paris hotel where the worn-out Genet hides with his last manuscript, a book supporting the ideas of Yasser Arafat.
Drawing on Genet's novels, including Our Lady Of The Flowers and The Thief's Journal, as well as his play The Balcony, Roy sketches a tantalizing scenario in which Genet, attracted to Pierre, the young son of the hotel owners, slips into fantasies of his own past.
In these dreamlike episodes, Pierre becomes the young Genet, bent on sexual and criminal escapades.
"Genet was disenfranchised from the start," notes Soulpepper member William Webster, who plays the writer. "Abandoned by his parents, he got into trouble early and was sent to Mettray, a truly appalling institution for delinquents. The kids were so badly treated that suicide was common."
"His early feelings for men were always linked with thieving," adds Andrew Hachey, the National Theatre School grad who plays Pierre and the younger Genet. "From the first, he was thrown into a lion's den this boys' prison and made himself a commodity.
"Realizing that he could determine his own future, Genet started to align himself with the right people, often violent men, staying with them until he didn't need them any more and then destroying the relationship.
"It was a pattern he followed throughout his life."
The Golden Thug is partly a memory play, with the writer drifting into flashback episodes filled with characters played by the people he meets at the hotel. Alternating between double entendres and poetic imagery, the script paints a picture of an extraordinarily talented and contradictory figure.
"When Ed recreates Genet's style of speaking, it's often very dense," says Webster. "I remember that when Soulpepper did Genet's The Maids a few years ago, the actors went through the tortures of the damned learning it, because his syntax is so layered.
"It can seem like flowery bullshit, but when you settle into his unique style, you realize it's sexy, full of breath, pulse and wit."
Webster admits that Genet probably wasn't a likeable figure.
"Yet we know that he had to struggle to create a life out of shame and misery. He ended up triumphing, becoming a powerful, creative man for whom personal freedom was vital. No surprise that he always fought for the underdog.
"Entirely self-taught, he didn't start to write until he was in his mid-30s, and then he came up with five books in the course of four years.
"Genet might have been traumatized by the events in his life, but he was never victimized by them."
In the play, Pierre reacts to the fact that the older man has touched a subconscious nerve.
"At first Pierre writes him off," says Hachey over lunch, "but then he realizes that he's speaking to him in a way that resonates unsettlingly."
On the other side, Genet recognizes something of himself in Pierre, both physically and in the central plot point of a theft.
"Pierre's in a situation not dissimilar to his own," suggests Webster. "Sensing it in a feral, jungle-esque way, as well as seeing a latent need in the boy, the writer casts himself in the role of challenging mentor."
Webster sees Genet as "a real hero who made his own life and set its parameters. He created that life, that image, just as he wanted, whether he was involved in a casual blow job beside a sewer or a sustained affair with someone.
"There's something magnificent about living in the moment and not bowing to anyone."