Writer: Jean Genet
Translation: Martin Crimp
Director: Lily Sykes
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
When HOME stages a play as ‘theatre in the round’ they really commit to the concept. The stage area for The Maids is built over the stalls lifting the performance space to the level of the dress circle. Patrons have, therefore, excellent sightlines and are in disturbing proximity to a cast enacting some very dark themes. There is even the opportunity, for those in an adventurous mood, to sit on the actual stage.
The Maidsconcerns two sisters engaging in an extreme form of fantasy role-play. Claire (Jake Fairbrother) and Solange (Luke Mullins) are a pair of maids who fantasise about becoming their mistress (Danny Lee Wynter) going so far as to take turns dressing in her clothes and playing the part of mistress or servant. They have already had the master of the house jailed by making false accusations to the authorities and when he is released on bail their role play moves towards the murderous and they begin to plan the elimination of their mistress.
Director Lily Sykes takes inspiration from the writings of author Jean Genet and his life story. Genet was a convict and wrote the initial draft of the play while in gaol stating playfully that he might, or might not, be the model upon which the characters are based. He had earlier said if he ever did write a play the women should be played by men and it should be clear that they are men not women.
Sykes takes Genet at his word but goes much further. The women in the play are played by men and a surtitle over the stage ensures the audience are aware of the fact. The cast live up to this approach and do not act in a particularly feminine manner; they are actors playing characters who are themselves acting.
This theme of people playing more than one role or of fantasising about a different lifestyle is apparent from the opening of the play. Sykes has staged the play in a gaol and the characters are male prisoners taking on female roles for the entertainment of their fellow convicts. Or perhaps not; The Maids is based on a real-life murder when two maids killed their mistress so it is possible we are watching the convicted murderesses re-enacting their crime. The constantly shifting viewpoints compel the audience to re-consider their perception of events and even reality.
There is a disturbing sense of duality; of things not being as they seem or having more than a single purpose. Prior to the play starting the cast, in prison overalls and mesh masks concealing their faces, prowl menacingly around the theatre. But when comedic music plays in the background they begin playing peak-a-boo with the audience and making fart jokes.
The cold white tiling of Ruari Murchison’s set could be either a prison bathroom or an upmarket dressing area. There is a sense of menace with sand pouring from the ceiling to remind us that time is running out and flowers with stems sharpened to points that thud into the floor like knives.
The present-day concern about gender fluidity is not addressed in the production. As it is clear that we are watching men play women there is a darker theme of sexual fantasy with the role-play between the maids nudging towards dominance and submission. The performances are excellent with a blazing display from Jake Fairbrother, Luke Mullins and Danny Lee Wynter that takes in tenderness, timidity, waspishness, bitchiness and outright desperation.
The staging of plays by French authors is rare in the UK and it is to be hoped that this imaginative and gripping production of The Maidsgoes some way to rectifying this situation.
Runs until 1 December 2018 | Image: Jonathan Keenan