Brighton Fringe 2018
Rough Brow Theatre
Festival: Brighton Fringe
The set was beautiful. The Paris apartment was starkly defined in white – white dressing table; white ottoman covered by a white fur, sitting on a white rug centre stage; skeletal white storage racks at the rear, holding Mistress’s dresses and jewellery – all thrown into prominence by the surrounding blackness of The Blockhouse interior.
When the lights come up Claire is standing in a black slip, and in her haughty upper-class voice she’s berating Solange, who’s sitting on the ottoman, snapping the fingers of her yellow washing-up gloves. Claire’s role-playing their employer – their Mistress – and addressing her actual sister Solange as ‘Claire’. Confused? You’re meant to be.
That’s the traditional opening of ‘The Maids’ – but here, Solange is dressed in black dungarees over a white T shirt. The effect was to make her look more like a handyman than a maid – much less feminine, quite butch in fact. And my, has she got a dirty mouth. Solange’s lines are peppered with ‘F’ words and ‘C’ words as she slowly, lovingly dresses Claire in one of their employer’s gowns and then proceeds to abuse her verbally, spitting out her venom – followed by actual spittle and a slap. Working them both up into a frenzy.
It’s only when the alarm clock shatters the action that Claire’s voice reverts to her working-class accent and we realise that the whole episode has been an elaborate act. That their employer will return soon. For this is how Claire and Solange spend their evenings when they’re alone in the apartment. They act out sadomasochistic scenarios, dripping with sexuality, which should end with the killing of their Mistress, and presumably in the emotional release of orgasm for themselves. But their obsessive attention to detail means that they so often run out of time.
Genet wrote ‘The Maids’ as a vicious analysis of the class system, and a provocative exploration of sexuality. Claire and Solange have been driven into domestic service by poverty. They are exploited, but at the same time they are in awe of the wealth and sophistication of their bourgeois Mistress. Powerless themselves, they fantasise about having power over her in turn. They envy her and they want to be her. They simultaneously despise her and love her. In his book ‘Saint Genet’, Jean-Paul Sartre says – ‘In Genet’s world, we are all prisoners in a system we embrace, even as it grinds us down’.
Genet’s 1947 play has traditionally been performed using Bernard Frechtman’s 1957 translation, but Roughbrow Theatre have used a modern text, by Benedict Adams and Andrew Upton. We don’t see a lot the complex psychology in this version, though. We are given the maids’ anger, but not so much of the sense of alienation that lies behind it. When it works, it works well – Claire’ feelings of humiliation “She’s so generous. She showers us with her dead, withered flowers” – but the script’s uneven, and loses a lot of Genet’s florid imagery. A constant stream of expletives may make the piece sound edgy – but Genet himself didn’t use a single one …
The script might be dubious – but Ben Alexander’s direction certainly isn’t. He’s achieved gripping performances from Madeline Hatt as Claire and Harriet Wakefield as Solange. The women work brilliantly as a double act – prowling around the apartment, alternating vicious tirades of abuse and bitchiness with interludes where they hold each other tenderly. “Do you remember? Under the tree, just the two of us. Our feet in the sun”. Wakefield plays Solange as the more angry, more pro-active, of the pair, while Hatt gave us the sense that Claire harboured some real feelings of love for their Mistress.
Love can turn vicious, though, and Claire has written anonymous letters that have got Mistress’s lover imprisoned. Solange couldn’t bring herself to strangle Mistress as she lay in bed (love, again?) so now they intend to poison the woman with a cup of drugged tea. When their Mistress finally appeared, with her blonde hair and her white dress, I almost wanted to kill her myself. Zannah Hodson gave us an appalling monster – vain, self-centred, totally self absorbed. Her lover’s incarcerated – she spells it out to Claire as if the woman’s a child, “In. Car. Ser. Ray. Ted.”, but she’s really more concerned with what she’s going to wear when she goes to visit him.
Adams and Upton’s script may not be pure Genet, but it’s still powerfully written, and they’ve put in some funny lines. The situation is ‘Absolute Torture’ for her, Mistress tells Claire – “You’re so lucky, you two. All alone, nothing to lose. That’s The Lord’s blessing for the poor”. There aren’t a lot of laughs in ‘The Maids’, but that line certainly got one. A mind like a butterfly, constantly fluttering from one thought to another – promising that she would bear her lover’s cross “to The Ends of The Earth”, then fretting about the cost of the flowers in the apartment. Mistress swears quite a lot too, in this version. Potty-mouth, like her maids – “Where is that stupid little cunt?” when Solange hasn’t come back with a taxi. A great character-portrait from Zannah Hodson.
So, to this reviewer – a flawed translation / adaptation of Genet, but a sparkling production by a very talented company. Go and see it if you get the chance – but if you want the real Genet then try to catch a Bernard Frechtman version.
Adams and Upton’s most serious deviation from Genet is near the end. Mistress has escaped the poisoned tea, and gone off to greet her Lover. But they’ll be back in the morning … The script has Solange urging flight – “We’ve no choice now but to make a run for it!” “We can’t stay here. Get a train or a bus. We’ve no money – let’s just grab the silver and go!” and Harriet Wakefield is very convincing in the line. But Solange wouldn’t say such a thing – it’s a total distortion of the woman’s psychology. They are going to be found out, but they won’t move. As a character from Genet’s play ‘Deathwatch’ notes – “It’s by its sweetness that we recognise catastrophe”. They will stay put, and Claire will drink the poisoned tea.
This apartment is their prison, and only Claire has found the means of escape.