Jean Genet’s psychosexual three-hander The Maids is a spectacularly elastic play. Inspired by a notorious real-life murder from the 1930s in which the Papin sisters battered the woman they worked for to death with a hammer, the play was first performed in 1947. But its themes of social inequality and the costumes of class and gender have never ceased being relevant.
Though Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton, in Jamie Lloyd’s lavish, petal-flecked West End staging, and Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, in Benedict Andrews’ New York production, have all starred in recent versions of the play, Genet originally intended the roles to be played by men. Director Lily Sykes, who before now has mostly worked in Germany, has cast Jake Fairbrother and Luke Mullins as sisters Claire and Solange, while Danny Lee Wynter plays the mistress.
As a young man, Genet was a petty criminal and spent time in prison, something that influenced both his writing and Sykes’ production. At the start the cast members, clad in orange prison jumpsuits and stocking masks, tease and menace the audience. Eventually they remove these outfits to reveal the baggy black uniform of domestic servants. The actors wear no wigs. They modify their voices a little, softening their speech, but their maleness is not concealed.
Wynter makes a charismatic, self-centred Madame, with a wicked sense of timing, doling out gifts then grabbing them back, while Mullins and Fairbrother convey the intensity of the sisters’ relationship, and their knotted-up love and hate of their status.
The auditorium at Home has been reconfigured in-the-round by designer Ruari Murchison. Screens on either side of the stage are used to display quotes from Genet as well as a live feed from two on-stage video cameras.
As the maids engage in ritualistic role-play in which they enact the murder of their mistress, a fine stream of sand falls from the ceiling. By the end, the white disc of a stage ends up strewn with gladioli and glitter.
It’s an intriguing production, tense and engaging, yet at times fuzzy. It’s replete with striking imagery – crimson veils draped over faces, safety pins held perilously close to eyeballs – and the circular staging adds to the sense of enclosure, the idea that we’re watching a battle play out. The recorded applause also reinforces the sense of a performance.
However, the prison framework hangs on the production like a dress in need of hemming. Are all three engaged in a further layer of role-play, a game of dominance and servitude? Why does their fantasy necessitate female attire?
It’s unclear, certainly not as clear as the fact that while so much of life is enactment, not all costumes can be easily shrugged off.