“We’re beautiful, wild, free and full of joy,” say the titular Maids, Solange and Claire, towards the close of Jean Genet’s 1947 drama, courtesy of Martin Crimp’s 1999 translation. Yet there is certainly little happiness to be found here, within the writer’s all-too-clear lament for the unfulfilled and powerless, the put-upon and taken-for-granted, who slowly but surely must be driven mad by the unfairness of their place in the world.
a sumptuous set, all chandeliers, relief-work and a floor strewn with rose-petals
Set within a lush, elegant Parisian bedroom—Kenneth Macleod creating a sumptuous set, all chandeliers, relief-work and a floor strewn with rose-petals—the first act is pretty much a two-hander, as we’re introduced to Solange (Ann Louise Ross) and her seemingly self-centred, overtly dramatic mistress (Irene MacDougall), bereft of a lover and bemoaning her maid’s “contamination” of her life. On the point of violence, an alarm goes off—which is when we realise that this is just an elaborate, and somewhat sadomasochistic, ritual played by Solange and her sister Claire while their mistress, Madame, is away.
Clearly, this is neither the first time they’ve plotted Madame’s death nor the last that a mutual focus on detail has robbed them of the time to carry out the deed, ritually or for real. The pair aren’t just physically trapped in their “squalid and bare” bedroom at the top of the house, or metaphorically in a sisterly relationship in which love has been twisted into disgust; they’re stuck in their behaviour and natures, and that appears to be the worst thing of all. “It’s easy to be kind when you’re rich and beautiful,” we’re told, and they are neither.
We don’t properly meet their mistress until the second half, when Emily Winter gives us a Madame who genuinely lives up to the clichés of the first act. Yet as she changes from one wig and dress to another, heading off into the Parisian night for a rendezvous with some overtly-romanticised lover, it’s clear that Madame is as much stuck in a role as the two sisters whom she regularly misnames. Though, of course, she avoids their visual fate; for, when not on stage, McDougall and Ross sit slumped on either side inside huge perspex boxes like lifeless dolls.
Director Eve Jamieson’s production is tonally layered—at times angry, at others verging on the grotesque—and sumptuously lit by Tim Mascall, while David Paul Jones provides an impactful musical soundscape that holds your attention. Yet what undoubtedly raises this new production above so many others is the strength of the cast: three women who are each veteran, 18-year members of Dundee Rep Ensemble, bringing nuanced clarity to every moment they are on stage.