Relocated to a contemporary USA and with two women of colour playing the servants, Jamie Lloyd’s version of Jean Genet’s The Maids becomes just as much about race as it does about class and incredibly powerfully so. The ‘otherness’, the ‘difference’ of which sisters Solange and Claire speak as they twist themselves into increasingly sadomasochistic games thus plays at an additional level and at the point when their socialite employer Madam casually, cruelly, asks Claire “which one are you, you both look the same to me”, it lands with an absolute gut-punch.
Loosely based on the real-life story of sisters Léa and Christine Papin who murdered their employer’s wife and daughter in 1933, years of servitude have similarly done for Uzo Aduba’s Solange and Zawe Ashton’s Claire. Whilst their mistress is out, they play vicious divertissements of dress-up in her couture gowns, roleplaying both her and each other in scenarios that end in violent death. And as eventually becomes apparent in the vibrant and salty language of Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s translation, what we’re actually witnessing is less a game than a rehearsal for the real thing.
Played straight through without an interval, The Maids is a breath-taking achievement, a stunningly committed piece of theatre that fires at full-throttle in every aspect. Lloyd heightens the theatricality of the maids’ scheming so that their identities become almost dangerously fluid and their grip on the situation thrillingly uncertain. One sequence of freezeframe effects is exciting a thing I’ve seen on a stage this year, kudos to Jon Clark’s vivid and highly inventive lighting design, and the ornate frame of Soutra Gilmour’s petal-filled design, with its suggestions of a twisted music box, makes the perfect setting.
Orange Is the New Black star Aduba and Ashton both deliver extraordinary performances, their personalities warped by the psychological damage inflicted upon them and exacerbated by the extremity of the situation they now find themselves. The poetic twists of Genet’s writing (via Andrews and Upton – how I wish I could have seen Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in their Sydney Theatre Company production), with its drip-feeding of crucial information, just takes flight in their hands as the constantly shifting power dynamic – both real and play-acted – becomes an emotional, visceral rollercoaster, even in the carrying out of domestic drudgery (top marks for broomwork!).
It’s no mean feat then for Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael to make her own mark in the smaller role of Madam but soundtracked by the thudding electro of Ben and Max Ringham’s compositions and strutting belatedly onto the set as if it were her own private catwalk – which is many ways it is – she’s marvellously monstrous. All shallow glamour and platitude-heavy insincerity, we see the other side of the power play, no less toxic in the way it has corrupted her too. Who knows how those who are familiar with the play will react to this version but for me, this was just fantastic – powerfully intimate, scorchingly relevant, all hail The Maids.
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 21st May