“Piercing the shadows of servant life”
Written by Paul Giffney on October 23, 2021
What a treat on a Friday night. A full audience, sitting in a ‘round’, awaiting men to come on stage dressed up as women. But this wasn’t a drag night or in a venue aimed at entertainment of ‘that sort’ (tuts under breath and glares). No. We were in The Church of The Holy Sepulchre, about to watch (and in my case, review) a play first performed in France, 1947.
The play? Jean Genet’s The Maids. The stage is opulently minimalist, with every item being significant and in stark contrast to the cold of the Church we await within. A mirror with no glass, an ‘effluvium’ of flowers, furs, and a telephone. The time, mood and setting of this French scene is finalised with Édith Piaf’s voice telling us to regret nothing while Weekes Baptiste’s lights skilfully focus us upon the action
A simple summation from the programme does not do the themes or plot justice but, in essence, the play is ‘loosely based on the true story of two sisters who brutally murdered their Mistress in 1933’. It is so much more though, and especially when in the capable hands of director and set designer, Rob Kendall. Having gender-reversed the actors for the maids (but maintaining their feminine pronouns, characterisations, and back-stories), this play fits tidily into any modern discussion of gender, class, power, and the ideas of how each aspect can be in a situation where it can be both equally abusive as well as being abused.
Taking place within a venue whose ‘walls are the ears of God’ is a bold move, and this is the first time this reviewer has ever heard anger and fear-driven shouting in a church! The maid actors Tom Rose (Solange) and Anthony Burgess (Claire) build each other up to eventually take on Daniel Burrows (their ‘Madame’), all due to their own perceived slights. This scene has been played out many times before though, in a fantastical, sadistic, delusional manner which forces each sister to encourage the other in a ceremonial fashion, escalating further as the play progresses until we believe that this Madame to be the cruellest creature in Christendom. So, when we have Burrows fabulously enter, smile, and then show a vulnerable woman who seems desperately alone, we must question the mind-states of these two servants: is it just jealousy that drives these two servants’ anger or is there something else at play?
The desires for more than what they have is apparent: the choices of costumier Pam Mann with the fancy clothes of the Madame juxtaposes the simplicity of the maids’ plain clothing. Great use is made of a single apron being passed between the two maids while they arrange to take turns mimicking their employer and then plan their demise. How can an audience find sympathy with these two characters who are planning murder?
Genet is known for playing with language and creating worlds of imagination that are more real than the stage provides – but without both Rose and Burgess expertly fleshing out the ‘strong’ bodies of the maids, we have only the words Genet has written in a book. A pity then, perhaps due to Genet’s excessive scripting of the first few scenes, that we take a while to warm to these characters: the confusion of the starting role-play scenes being intended to highlight the driving identity issues but, in this production, it causes an audience to take a bit longer than average to align themselves with these protagonists. The fear, the apprehension, the tension and the humour finds it way through the excellent pacing of the latter two-thirds of the play.
Rose’s emotions seem a little scripted at times however and, rather than carry through the mood, he sometimes seems to be awaiting his next expression of emotion rather than fully embracing the emotion. For any actor to deliver the amount of script he must do though, he does very well, with him achieving his best scenes when he is with others on stage. Burgess draws on his background of improv and stand-up to arrange the pacing of his lines more and, together, these two ‘sisters’ entertain the audience continually, exploring their odd relationship to the end.
Rose’s anger is powerfully contrasted with the wily manipulation of the scenes where Burgess’ calmness seems almost sociopathic. We recall the humorous childlike vulnerability of Rose at the start with the manic frenzied actions of Burgess whilst watching this ebb and flow, reflecting and listening to the intense silences of the last scene. Rose delivers his last lines so poignantly that the audience await, and long, for more: we were left feeling ‘beautiful, joyous, drunk and free’ but understanding that the freedom has come at a high cost.
The Maids production finishes on Saturday 23rd October – tickets are still available at: http://masquetheatre.co.uk/productions/the-maids/