Words: Stephen M Hornby
The house lights in the auditorium randomly rise and fall. Three prisoners in orange jumpsuits prowl around, their faces distorted with stockings pulled over their faces.
Like playful panthers, they greet us, shaking hands, sitting on knees, demanding hands are kissed, stealing phones and rummaging through handbags. They are like the spirit of Jean Genet, the quintessential French queer, manifesting in the space as a disruptive, mildly criminal sense of mischief.
The Maids was written in 1947, inspired by the gruesome murder of a lady and her daughter at the hands of their servants; sisters, who having gouged their victims’ eyes out, took naked to their bed and waited to be discovered.
Genet transformed the story into a beautifully twisted power play between two sisters, Claire and Solange, who roleplay as their mistress and act out fatal scenarios. When Mistress arrives home, the game crashes into reality, and things become far more sinister. The poison in the camomile tea is real and someone is going to drink it.
The Maids has been performed regularly since its debut. Genet brilliantly captured something enduring about how power operates between humans, which means that the play speaks to almost any gender, race and age casting.
Here, director Lily Sykes uses three men, and mixes race across the power divide with one black maid and a black Mistress. She also imposes an overt prison frame around the play, suggesting it is a game played by offenders. This works initially in linking the play to Genet’s upbringing, but then little is done with the lengthy set-up.
Having the Mistress as a Prison Guard and bouncing into the frame could’ve made it more worthwhile. As it is, it feels tacked on. Like the use of live on-stage cameras, which work for one early scene and then feels strained. Sykes might do better to trust the original text more and impose on it less. Or impose on it more, and trust more to the vision she is creating.
The cast are strong. Danny Lee Wynter presents a splendidly melodramatic and self-absorbed Mistress, hilarious and gently malign with the assumption of her right to privilege.
Jake Fairbrother is commanding and impetuous as Claire and Luke Mullins offers a brittle but deadly Solange. There isn’t perhaps the full spark of repressed sexual chemistry between the two sisters that is present in the subtext, but they punch out their performances in demanding roles.
This production of The Maids transforms HOME’s main space in a mammoth piece of staging. It makes it into something it is not, but that seems apposite for a play where female characters are played by men, the period is both arcane and present day and the location is both a prison and the apartment of Mistress.
It is an engaging production in which the spirit of Genet is very present in its queer splendour.
Runs 1 December 2018. For great deals on tickets and show click here.