Thursday, 12 May 2016
Review The Maids
By Jean Genet
Off Their Heads
To be honest, when TLT and her own non-curtseying domestic vehicle went along to the Trafalgar Studios to see Jean Genet's 1947 play The Maids late in the run, they were going to pass on doing a review. But then we saw the understudy Chereen Buckley had stepped in for Zawe Ashton and it felt as if fate had stepped in.
Of course, there is a certain amount of blogging self-importance here and no doubt the maids in Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton's translation would call us "patronising c***s". But which other reviewer has a sidekick with a bone fide MOT certificate? Because if you are reading this, you exist, TLT exists and of course our soft-top motor with a full tank of critical acumen exists!
Anyway back to Jean Genet and The Maids. Apparently he always denied it is loosely based on a real-life 1933 murder case, that of the Papin sisters, which fascinated the literati, even 14 years later.
At the start an avalanche of rose and white petals tumble down from above on a set designed by Soutra Gilmour. A mistress (Chereen Buckley) and a maid (Uzo Aduba), both black, circle each other on the four-poster bed of a stage in heavy dark wood with gilt twirls in the style of Louis - Louis something or other.
At least we think it is a mistress and maid from a Southern US state or a dresser and a drag queen, the latter in blonde wig and trying on a frock of - is the original French the ambiguous - Madame? But it turns out to be two sisters, domestic servants (or maybe employees in this post-Obama-age translation) play acting in their wealthy employers' bourgeois bedroom.
Solange (Aduba) stocky and laconic, Claire (Buckley) more slender and fragile but with a vicious if imaginative streak manifesting itself in anonymous letters to the authorities about the male head of the household. Accusations which have led to his arrest and, we learn from a phone call, his (maybe temporary) release on bail.
The mistress (Downton Abbey's Laura Carmichael), a sort of Blue Jasmine, sashays in like a catwalk diva in fox fur, bling silver mini-skirt suit and striped stockings echoing both French revolution garb and a more contemporary military uniform. With the references to Catholicism, TLT did wonder if it were set in New Orleans, where the mega rich in serious party gear live side by side in a city with the poverty stricken.
The maids parallel their female employer with Marie Antoinette, but instead of the guillotine, set out in vain to poison her. She, when believing her spouse still in jail, offers them her fox fur and Marianne cap-red McQueen dress. However learning from the maids eventually, her husband is free, the offer is quickly forgotten and the old hierarchy returns with a seemingly fatal difference.
Only two years later, Samuel Beckett was writing Waiting For Godot and, for TLT and her loyal companion, this play in some ways shares similarities. Post war France had undergone the trauma and treachery of collaboration and peacetime retributions.
When the faux "mistress" in this production removes her blonde wig and reveals short cropped hair, it could reflect wartime liaisons followed by tarring and feathering for the women branded sexual traitors. In Godot there is the servile bondage of Lucky and Pozzo - and also a male character who never appears.
We are glad to have seen The Maids at last but, while all the performances have clarity and power, we wonder about interpretation by director Jamie Lloyd.
Not having seen the main cast or any other production of this play we wouldn't have known if it hadn't been pointed out by notices leading to the auditorium that there was an understudy in the house. And somehow the predicament (and in this case success) of the understudy makes an apt segue with this self-consciously theatrical play.
The translation,without knowing the original, and although updated and probably necessarily with some adjustments, seemed ok to us. However, there were times when this production felt frantic and rather shouty, although these gave more force to the quieter moments when they eventually came.
Maybe the original impetus behind Genet writing the play, the bourgeois fascination with the criminal psychology of the Papin sisters (Genet's denial seems disingenous), the crime shoehorned into fashionable theories, is rather lost.
And the over-blown TV crime thriller flashes and shouty nature of the first quarter irritated, although we could understand the reasoning behind this with the text indicating the maids (or employees) obsessed with popular crime magazines.
A one act play running at one hour and 45 minutes, it felt long. Still, the characters compel and it would be interesting to see the same script in another kind of production. An amber/green light from we partners-in-crime.