The Maids by Jean Genet

First performed in 1947, Jean Genet’s The Maids was inspired by the true story of sisters Christine and Léa Papin, who murdered their employer and her daughter. However, this version, directed by Ben Alexander, was based on the muscular adaptation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton where the language – vitriolic and fierce – is brought right up to date. It works as a fantastical piece about playacting. It depicts the pain of unfulfilled lives and how power can work on the powerless, and is therefore deeply political.

Depicts the pain of unfulfilled lives and how power can work on the powerless.

Claire and Solange are sisters and housemaids who, when their mistress is out, alternately play the roles of vicious mistress and insubordinate servant in a detailed and ritualised fantasy. However, the alarm-clock they set always goes off before they can bring their ritual to its resolution: the murder of the mistress they obsessively love and hate. Their ritual has now been disrupted. The Mistress’s lover, whom Claire secretly shopped to the police, is out on bail. Moreover, Claire and Solange have decided to kill their Mistress for real.

In this production, the set – a palette of white, black and reds – was carefully lit so that the Mistress’s room was contained and illuminated in the dark cave that is The Blockhouse at The Warren. Metal railings and shelving functioned as the Mistress’s wardrobe, on which fancy clothes and treacherously high-heeled shoes were stored. A full-length mirror allowed the actors’ reflections to bounce back out to the audience. An ottoman strewn with fur rugs, and a dressing table with vases of flowers, signalled under-stated opulence.

The action starts with the sisters engaged in their fantasy: Solange, superbly played with barely contained rage by Harriet Wakefield, sits on the ottoman plucking at the ends of the yellow rubber gloves she is wearing while her more highly-strung sister Claire, played excellently by Madeline Hatt, sneers and spits a venomous diatribe at her.

This sets the scene well for the rest of the play: much unhappiness, much hate. It could all be too much really, but handled by these actors it never is. As with most tragedy, humour slips through as the lines between the sisters blur; at one point, the mistress claims she can’t tell them apart. The love (Solange’s eyes well up at times), menace, and sexual tension between them is reflected back on them and then onto the mistress - and so that free-standing mirror on set assumes greater significance.

The Mistress is strongly played by Zannah Hodson who offers a perfect blend of high-pitch narcissism, condescension and cruelty. The Mistress is playacting too, imagining herself first as a martyr being killed by the kindness of her servants and then as the exiled woman (fabulous new wardrobe required) loyal to her wronged man. In some ways she can be seen as trapped in her role, too.

A reference to the Mistress and the maids attending mass seems tacked on, but this is more to do with the adaptation, which sacrifices Genet’s original perversion of religious ritual. In addition, an eyebrow may be raised at the maid/servant dichotomy being played out in a modern setting. Yet, although the upstairs/downstairs hierarchy is less visible now than in the past, highly divided class structures and power imbalance still exists, giving the play a contemporary relevance.

The audience responded with enthusiastic and sustained applause. Quite right too.

Reviews by Jonna Brett

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The Blurb

SADISTIC. SAVAGE. SEDUCTIVE. Two maids attempt to overthrow their mistress in a callous murder plot that ends in catastrophe. Consumed by hate and obsession, the girls quickly become victims to their own depraved games. Playful, evil and desperate; the girls are unstoppable until they are confronted by a reality that is more frightening than their darkest fantasies. There are no rules when it comes to murder in this new version of the classic Genet play translated by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton.