The Theatreguide.London Review
Trafalgar Studios Spring 2016
Jean Genet's 1947 play is a densely textured study in psychology, sexuality, Marxism, obsession and probably a half-dozen other things that make it pretty heavy going, and neither a new translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton nor the direction by Jamie Lloyd offer much to lighten things or make it easier on the audience.
You may find it fascinating and engrossing, but I fear you are more likely to find it turgid, overblown and exhausting.
I have to begin with an inescapable spoiler alert. The first scene off the play lies to you, and there is no way to avoid giving that away.
What we think we see is a rich woman identified only as Mistress being attended by her maid Claire. The two effusively express their love and devotion to each other, while the occasional catty aside hints at exactly the opposite.
And then the truth is revealed. Mistress is not Mistress and Claire is not Claire. The maid Claire is playing at being her mistress while her sister and fellow maid Solange is pretending to be Claire.
The sisters play this strongly ritualised game whenever the real Mistress is away, to work out their complicated feelings toward her and each other.
They resent her riches and power but envy her riches and power. They resent her beauty but are drawn to it. They envy her her male lover, but are torn between desiring him themselves and wanting to get rid of him because they desire her.
When the actual Mistress appears they fawn over her and plot her murder, and when she departs they fall irresistibly back into the role-playing game with a much darker tone.
All these jumbled emotions are compounded by their play-acting games to the point that their confused feelings toward each other are added to the mix, and they (and we) can't always be sure who they are feeling what emotion toward.
(Genet originally wanted to add to the sexual/psychological/identity jumble by casting male actors as the sisters, and here director Jamie Lloyd pays homage to that idea by directing Zawe Ashton to play Claire as if she were a man in drag.)
All that constantly shifting psychology is difficult for an audience to keep up with, but all that constantly shifting psychology is Genet's point.
One reason the playwright's reputation peaked in the 1960s was that he seemed to demonstrate convincingly that Marxism and sexuality could not be separated, that class envy and sexual desire were bound together, that hatred of the master could reflect the self-hatred of the servant for accepting servitude, and that there was very little discernible difference between the impulse to adore and the wish to destroy.
Now, those are of course contentious positions that you don't have to agree with, and one reason Genet's reputation has faded is that some of his ideas and paradoxes now seem more glib than insightful.
Still, we don't have to accept everything Shakespeare or Strindberg or O'Neill believes to appreciate the dramatic power of their plays, and a stronger play might carry us past the more problematic of Genet's ideas. But The Maids is not a particularly well-constructed play, and Jamie Lloyd's production does little to hide its faults.
Every scene is far longer than needed to make its point, and when the words go on and on and nothing new is being said, things drag. (This production runs an hour and forty-five minutes without interval, but feels much longer.) And as things drag, it becomes ever harder and ever less rewarding to keep focussed.
The new translation seems notable only for its abundance of four-letter obscenities, generally used as angry insults, which may reflect the tone of Genet's original French but gets old very fast.
The play is performed in transverse, with audience on two sides, set designer Soutra Gilmour has the actors retrieving all necessary props out of traps in the floor, and lighting designer Jon Clark punctuates events with frequent changes in lighting, but none of these stage effects seem particularly relevant.
While in her brief scene Laura Carmichael as the real Mistress has little to play but airheaded Barbie doll, Zawe Ashton as Claire and Uzo Aduba as the more intense and passionate Solange devote admirable energy and talent to holding our attention and keeping both the complex psychology/philosophy and the onstage drama at full intensity.
You are likely to admire their performances more than the play they work so hard to serve.
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