21 November 2018.
Jean Genet’s thoughts on casting men as a play’s female protagonists are projected above the stage for the opening moments of Lily Sykes’ new production of The Maids. Whatever you think of his view, it’s an unequivocal statement, a fixed point – somewhere to start, something to hold on to. Once that fades however, things become increasingly slippery as we are drawn into a household living on their nerves, where nothing is quite what it seems and the rules are there to be broken.
A story of two maids, sisters Claire and Solange, who obsessively plot the murder of their mistress unfolds – but who is telling it to us and to what end? Genet wrote The Maids while in prison, and a prologue establishes that this production begins behind bars. Three male prisoners, faceless and clad in numbered yellow overalls, gradually transform themselves into the play’s three women. However, all three prison uniforms display the same number, and there are hints that the trio of men, like the women they become, are all perhaps facets of Genet’s personality.
The worlds of incarceration and servitude are blurred. A rigid metal walkway and a row of harsh strip lights loom above the circular outlines of the mistress’s apartment. The maids feel trapped by their situation – increasingly worried that they will be exposed as the authors of a letter that resulted in the mistress’s husband being arrested.
Sykes’s production excels in its ability to create an unsettling dream-like world. Its inhabitants come into being through the process of story-telling – “you are the mistress and I am the maid” – only to then swap roles or indulge in obsessive rituals. While there are references to it being a “game”, the sister’s predicament feels more desperate than playful.
“It’s obvious that the maids are guilty if the mistress is innocent” says Solange, and there is a pervasive sense of social injustice – a cruel and fickle environment where conventional morality is turned upside down. The imprisoned ‘Genet’ shows us a collection of images of famous people divided up into MAL or BON, before frantically clawing at them as if blending the two opposites together.
Designer Ruari Murchison has radically transformed HOME’s main theatre, creating an intimate in-the-round space. With the audience on all sides, Claire and Solange’s elaborate rituals become grotesquely gladiatorial, their sorry situation a spectator sport. Solange, in particular, craves an audience for her deeds, revelling at one point in the notoriety her murderous intent will confer upon her. Our gaze makes us complicit in their suffering somehow, our interest in them as unhealthy as the sisters’ fascination with Murder magazine.
Technology is deftly co-opted, creating another layer of surveillance with cameras and screens focusing attention up close. However the characters are unfazed by the attention, and use the lens as if it were a mirror into which they stare deeply.
To a large extent, everything is kept afloat by the intense, subtly layered performances from the show’s three actors. They indulge in role-play, and inhabit each other’s personalities while always retaining a strong sense of their characters’ distinctive core traits. As Solange, Luke Mullins is chilly and controlling, while younger sister Claire (Jake Fairbrother) is nervous and vulnerable. Despite treating the maids like indulged children, Danny Lee Wynter’s capricious and silly Mistress elicits sympathy and brings moments of light relief.
Amidst the heightened drama created by the three performers, there are some very clever visual touches. Sand pours down from above as if time is running out for both the maids and their intended victim. Danger lurks in unlikely places – flowers with pointed metal stems are thrown around with violent abandon and the mistress curls her eyelashes with the sharp end of a safety-pin.
Admirably, Lily Sykes’ dark and compelling production doesn’t serve everything up neatly on one of the mistress’s finest china plates. It creates instead a smouldering atmosphere of ambiguity and transgression, in which it becomes not just possible, but totally appropriate, to believe that those who represent the “monstrous subconscious of the pariah” are also equally capable of being “beautiful, wild, free and full of joy”.
Images by Jonathan Keenan.