DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Maids – Studio Theatre, Harrogate

Writer: Jean Genet

Director: Michael White

Designer: Irene Jade

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The Maids is a mystery, not in the sense of The Mousetrap that occupied Harrogate Theatre’s main auditorium the previous week, but in the difficulty in determining what Jean Genet’s play really means. Murder, incest, lesbianism and sadomasochism nudge their way into the text, along with much more explicit social commentary, poetic expressionism and the odd hint of Christian sacrifice. What Genet certainly cultivates is ambiguity.

The waters are further muddied by the need for a translation. The production about to finish in the West End has attracted some rave reviews, some others claiming that it’s a travesty of Genet’s play, and the comment from one reviewer that it’s an “oddly asphyxiating two hours”. Not at Harrogate it isn’t, though it is a fairly long 80 minutes. The London production’s torrent of foul language has been widely commented on. Square Peg Theatre uses the venerable translation of Bernard Frechtman and there is hardly a word to make your maiden aunt blush. Nor, are there actions that have that proverbial effect, quite as common as one might expect.

To get down to certainties, Claire and Solange are sisters, maids to a rich woman known only as Madame. While she is away from home, they play out ritual games that would end in the murder of Madame if they could get that far. Madame returnsthen leaves to see her lover, newly freed from prison (the maids complicit in his arrest), before an ending as dramatic and unhinged as it is opaque.

The opacity is there from the start. The play begins with a mistress verbally abusing her servant Claire. This is, of course, part of the maids’ play-acting, but to keep the audience in an uneasy tension, the mistress is really Claire and the part of Claire is taken by her fellow-servant Solange. Later an obliging Frechtman puts in enough name checks to help us remember who is who. Michael White’s direction intelligently exploits the ambiguity. At the start, there are two “maids” on stage, surely the Maids of the title, but the one who silently assists with handling props or serving as a wardrobe is the actor who will soon appear as Madame.

And appear she most certainly does! A well reasoned, but often low-key, production has a few moments of intense dramatic impact and the first appearance of Madame is one – amazing what can be done with simple lighting and sound and a well-timed turn! Deborah Pugh’s performance, however, is rather odd. At first, it seems that with her enlarged gestures and elongated vowels, she is duplicating Claire’s impersonation. She carries it off with aplomb, but Michael White seems to be asking for one layer of unreality too many.

For Solange and Claire, however, the constant shape-shifting is essential – and how well it’s carried off by Olivia Sweeney and Katie Robinson, co-artistic director with White of Square Peg. Sweeney, dramatically self-regarding as Madame, finds asurprising humanity in Claire and hints at an underused talent for comedy. Robinson has an equally remarkable range, from the sly nudges and winks of the opening to a climactic speech of paranoid passion.

Square Peg’s skill with physical theatre shows in some ingeniously stylised movement, but there is a sense of playing safe that is by no means entirely unwelcome in a puzzling and potentially very unpleasant play.

Touring Regionally | Image:David Oates

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