Eye-catching casting and director Jamie Lloyd’s typically precision-honed visual style don’t quite prove enough to bring to life this modern production of Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids.
This version was adapted and first staged by Benedict Andrews in Sydney in 2013, starring Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert; London gets Zawe Ahston (Vod in Fresh Meat) and Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes in Orange is the New Black), and Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith in Downton Abbey).
The maids are two American sisters, who enact psycho-sexual fantasies of killing their capricious, mega-rich fashion doll of a mistress. This is a timely, silkily modernised adaptation, and casting two BAME actresses as the maids to a white mistress obviously adds a further charged frisson of racial tension.
This should be trip-wire taut, with a thriller-ish momentum, yet the translation by Andrews and Andrew Upton is overly repetitious, always telling not showing when it comes to the indignities these women suffer, their love-hate relationship with their mistress – and with each other.
Lloyd’s direction doesn’t always help: we’re in a heightened, highly-strung pitch of emotion from the off, but it becomes strangely boring after nearly two hours sans interval. I felt like there was more black humour to be mined here too.
There are, however two lengthy, knock-out scenes. The show opens with the sisters’ role-playing: Claire (Ashton) puts on a blonde wig, towering heels and a scarlet gown, imitating her mistress, while Solange (Aduba) takes insults and humiliations until finally enacting murder. Ashton give an absolutely sensational performance here as a female drag queen; her voice low and fruity, her gestures vast and imperious, her long-limbed strut hyper-feminised. She’s smooth and glossy as golden syrup, yet there’s simultaneously something grotesque in this vicious caricature of womanhood. Aduba is good as the – yes – crazy-eyed bowin’-and-scrapin’ maid, but it’s Ashton who transfixes.
After this, the ‘real’ scenes between them disappoint. Neither actress finds much variation; it can feel like being bludgeoned over the head with “twenty reasons why maids might want to kill their employer”. But when the mistress finally appears, it’s another shot in the arm for the production.
Waspy Carmichael is shrill with inconsistent, thoughtlessly cruel demands. Vacuous and oblivious to her good-fortune, she’s a caricature of the 1 per cent, but one which Carmichael inhabits with vitality. Trussed up in a sculpted silvery mini-suit, furs and glittery heels, she looks like a cross between Paris Hilton and Narnia’s White Witch.
Soutra Gilmour’s set is a gilt-ornamented, four-postered, furniture-free box: a curiosity cabinet for the audience, seated on both sides, to peer at. The mistresses’ room is filled with flowers, abstractly realised with a carpet of pink petals, which the maids slowly sweep up before another lot descend. It makes for both a gorgeous stage image, and a real-time reminder of their endless drudgery.
Lloyd uses lighting shifts, flashes and blackouts to indicate emotional states or moments of especially high-drama; unnecessary, perhaps, but effective. It’s a polished, good-looking production, but that doesn’t always chime with a play about the darker, seamier undercurrents that lurk when financial inequality breeds unjust imbalances of power