FringeReview UK 2016
Jamie Lloyd brings a new translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton of Genet’s 1947 landmark play to pitch the politics of the rich in the middle of Whitehall. Three well-known screen actors, Uza Aduba, Zawe Ashton, Laura Carmichael revel in the opportunity. Soutra Gilmour designs.
Jamie Lloyd brings another not-accidentally-political production to Trafalgar Studios, in Whitehall itself. Genet’s second play The Maids from 1947 is the first of two of his plays – his very first, Deathwatch runs at the Coronet – to have opened in a long time.
Genet would have liked that. Emerging from prison he excelled in perpetrating establishment classic prose and verse spoken by murderers, pimps and here by cruelly exploited maids. It’s like Racine, whom he inverts here. Lloyd doesn’t miss this: the play ratchets up like seventeenth-century tragedy amongst Palladian government buildings: its fury is however vented on just such privilege.
It’s an emotionally complex, simply-plotted play delivered in stylised fashion, full of strut and declamatory speeches. The translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton is new and accessible if losing a touch of Genet’s classicism: Cate Blanchet used it, and the cast here eagerly quits screen for theatre. Uzo Aduba’s Solange (Orange is the New Black), Zawe Ashton’s Claire (Fresh Meat) and Laura Carmichael’s Mistress (Downton) hurl themselves into hyperventilated delivery, Deep South drawl and skirl.
Soutra Gilmour’s arcane giant wooden four-poster emprisons proceedings in a continuum of enslavement. Showered by rose-peals, blonded Ashton spits to Aduba: ‘Everything… that comes out of that kitchen is covered in cum and slobber.’ Andrews/Upton sex-up or point-up Genet, who at the end of his life did the same to Deathwatch in any case. The wig-blonde who then ritually crushes her heel into the postulant-positioned Aduba is her sister. They’re enacting role-reversals full of release but equally self-loathing and switch savagely: Aduba abuses Mistress, her sister arrayed as Drag Queen in a McQueen red dress. There’s a sacramental thread running through this, thinner than Genet’s original, a mild distortion: it re-emerges at points of Mistress’s pseudo-martyrdom in church faintly spraying them with holy water, and the very end.
A sisterhood frottage extends fascination with Mistress’s rising breasts as she sleeps, alongside their loathing, something implicit but which Lloyd raises to ritual like the Carol Ann Duffy poem ‘Warming Her Pearls’. ‘The sheets warm with her precious life’ mines a near-identical sensibility.
Such ritual’s stretched years. The sisters disrupted it: Claire’s shopped Mistress’s criminal lover, who phones to announce he’s got bail. Their part in his arrest will be discovered. Time to kill Mistress. ‘Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to hack we go’ exuberantly subverts other American assumptions of servility.
Carmichael’s headlamp entrance does nothing to dispel our assumptions of patronizing, casual cruelty. Donning sackcloth-and-ashes black as prison visitor, she donates dress and furs to the sisters – who’ve been strutting in them – before snatching them back on learning of her lover’s release, heralding champagne. She rushes to him, the maids left to piece a shattering way out.
It’s then Aduba’s Solange blisters a soliloquy, blazing putative ends and oppression’s means till the crisis, pure Racine monologue, c-words intact, paeans fiery deliverance from bondage. It’s overwhelming. Genet’s black-mass inversion of sacrament streams rage on Mistress’s faux-martyrdom, returning to frame endgame.
Aduba’s towering ferocity is new here, stamping this role for a generation. Ashton’s verbally stylized brilliance in the opening works particularly well: like a McQueen ruff with fantastically starched appendages, though she sashays a sexuality displaced and hungry, and quiet distinction to the close. Carmichael heel-clacks privilege with that dysfunctional narcissism donned obliviously by the rich, couched in face-saving gestures all too easily torn back. This trait manifests evil when empowered in politicians. Lloyd’s vividly pitched his tent in a house of excrement, decidedly not the theatre but the ‘white shit’ outside. That demotic is the most-used word in the play.