Writer: Jean Genet
Translators: Benedict Andrews &Andrew Upton
Director: Jamie Lloyd
Reviewer: Daniel Perks
What would you do if driven to desperation? We all feel at times as though we are stuck in a job that is going nowhere, or simply observers instead of participators in life. But there are some that are so stuck in their work that they are unable to escape without serious consequences – where would they live, how would they eat, what kind of life would they have?
There is no clear indication as to when exactly this production of The Maids is set, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine that it is during a period of racial segregation in the USA; two black maids Solange &Claire (Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton respectively) are so afraid to leave their Mistress (Laura Carmichael) and her Mister that they have stayed in her frankly awful service for far too long. After all the years of dedication, keeping their mouths shut despite the way they are treated, both of the maids have had enough. The play opens with Claire (Ashton) celebrating her triumph – she has succeeded in reporting the Mister’s illicit activities and much to Mistress’s distress he has been arrested. The Maids are hopeful that things can only get better…
Everything about this play is an absolute triumph. As the curtains are raised the audience glimpses a still of Claire dressed up as the Mistress and Solange as her badly behaved maid; rose petals are strewn on the ground, intense fluorescent lights pulsate and the background music is low, throbbing and electronic. Not even a minute into this production and there is an immediate impression of creativity, contemporary visuals and the potential to witness something incredible, all thanks to Soutra Gilmour’s inspired design. This doesn’t dissipate over the next two hours – there is no interval because one isn’t needed, why lose audience focus when they are caught up in the emotional turbulence emanating from each of the actors? Every scene has an impetus, a purpose and a clear vision from director Jamie Lloyd that ebbs and flows with ever-increasing tension. Halfway through, where an interval could potentially be inserted, the Mistress enters and suddenly the production comes round full circle with a mesmerising scene change that suddenly reverts everything back to square one. An interval at this point? Out of the question.
“The maid only exists through me”, spits Solange as she imitates the Mistress. There is such venom in this delivery, bile and disgust as the two maids act out their shared fantasy of killing their employer. Claire prances around in her rouge, her blonde wig and her dress like an over-trussed drag queen with an air of obviously faked opulence. The conviction between both characters here is spellbinding to watch – they rotate effortlessly between manic laughter, intense depression and murderous conviction. They are sick of being resigned to their fates and determined to find any way they can out of the situation, but are not convinced that their nerves will hold when the chips are down. Such is the extent of their need to escape any way possible that Solange is willing to commit unspeakable crimes, convinced that she is only doing what is necessary to her sister.
The Mistress to is everything that a villainous character should be. A caricature of the upper classes, she prances around in a scatty and arrogant fashion with a holier than thou complex and a fur as fake as her sincerity to the staff. The accuracy with which the maids imitate their Mistress in the earlier part to the play is realised upon seeing her in the flesh, with some excellent characterisation between all three to give such clarity to the Mistress’ introductory scene.
There are a couple of moments in this play where once could conceivably begin to lose interest. But ultimately, Jamie Lloyd and the cast breathe a whole new life into Jean Genet’s timeless writing. Contemporary direction and progressive sets serve as the backdrop to the outstanding acting of Aduba, Ashton and Carmichael.
Runs until May 21 2016 | Image:Marc Brenner