Robert Tanitch reviews The Maids at Trafalgar Studio, London SW1.
Jean Genet (1910-1986), delinquent, thief, poet, novelist, playwright, spent most of his life in reformatories and prison.
The Maids, his first critical success as a playwright, is a sado-masochistic, homoerotic game of servitude and domination played out by two of society’s outcasts. It premiered in Paris in 1947 and was directed by the great Louis Jouvet.
The first time I saw it, it was acted by Glenda Jackson and Susannah York and Vivien Merchant. The whole stage was converted into a gigantic bed and the actresses waded ankle-deep in fur.
Jean-Paul Sartre (who along with Jean Cocteau) was instrumental in getting Genet out of prison) always said that Genet wanted the roles to be played by men. The second time I saw it, it was acted by men.
I have yet to see a totally successful performance. The only English director who really knew how to stage Genet was Lindsay Kemp.
The ritual begins with the maids, Claire and Solange, invading their mistress’s boudoir, dressing up in her clothes and play-acting at being servant and mistress. They intend to murder her on her return with a nice cup of tea.
Audiences will be going to Jamie Lloyd’s production to see three well-known actors acting up to the hilt and wallowing in rose petals.
Zawe Ashton’s Claire behaves like a female drag queen when she is in her mistress’s wig, red gown and teetering on high heels. Ozo Adura is the butch, scheming, screaming, murderous Solange. Laura Carmichael is the pampered, spoiled, bitchy, shitty mistress, a gangster’s moll, who can’t tell the difference between her maids
There is absolutely no point whatsoever in underplaying when acting in Genet’s plays; but the way-over-the-top slobbering becomes tiresome in this foul-mouthed version.