Theatre | The Maids

Gary Raymond attended The Riverfront Theatre in Newport to witness the latest production by Theatr Pena, The Maids.

Jean Genet’s The Maids is a play about theatricality and illusion. Few things are as difficult to convincingly portray on stage as people acting. Theatr Pena’s latest production is a strong, intellectually ambitious thriller that grips keenly onto the twisted centres of Genet’s characters. Where the play falls short is in scope and, most tellingly, in drama. It is a frustrating duality that leaves a frustrated feeling of a missed opportunity; great characters, fully realised, left swaying in the wind.

The Maids is the flip side to every Shakespearean farce that has one character confusing another character for a third, for every woman who dresses as a boy to get her way, or to manipulate her environment. Genet even wrote in one of his early novels how he wished to subvert the Shakespearean model one day by writing something hideous and dark about women and then having young boys play all the parts. If this is the Frenchman’s attempt at swimming in the wake of the bard it is one that has more Genet in it than any forebear. Shakespeare was never this dark. Genet had an almost parasitic ability to make his audience feel uncomfortable, and a major criticism of this production, for all that it does right, is that it just isn’t nasty enough, it doesn’t feel Genet enough.

The Maids by Jean Genet Theatr Pena/The Riverfront review
The Maids
by Jean Genet
Theatr Pena/The Riverfront
Starring: Christine Pritchard, Olwen Rees, Rosamund Shelley
Director: Erica Eirian

The plot takes for its basis the famous Le Mans killings of 1933 of a wife and daughter by their maids, Christine and Lea Papin. The murders had a profound effect on French intellectual thought in the subsequent decades; as well as Genet’s play of 1947, Sartre and Jacques Lacan both wrote at length about it, using it as a paradigm for the darkest apex of the class struggle. But whereas the considerable genius of Sartre and Lacan made for interesting analytical reading, Genet, the former criminal and prostitute’s  son, saw the event as the canvas on which to creatively explore his own preoccupations.

His play centres on the death-black games of two maids, Clare and Solange (played here with striking fullness by Christine Pritchard and Olwen Rees), who spend their days in the service of Madame and Monsieur. The highpoint of their day, however, is when Clare dresses up as Madame, and Solange takes the role of Clare, whereupon they abuse each other for a while before acting out the murder of the lady of the house. The entire play, stodgy with Genet’s wondrous poetic prose, is placed somewhere between reality and dream, somewhere, perhaps, between William Shakespeare’s woodland and John Webster’s insane asylums.

Bernard Frechtman’s translation is adroit, and pays much attention to the spirit of Genet. But one can’t help but feel that Erica Eirian’s production is a little further removed from Genet than it might have been. This is not a broad problem; texts are there to be interpreted, after all. But Genet revelled in an almost mystical pestilential prodding at the corruption of the soul. Here the sadomasochism of the incestuous sisters is played down almost to mute. The scene where Clare, dressed as Madame, verbally abuses Solange whilst she brings herself to climax is treated with such squeamishness one wonders why it wasn’t just cut entirely to save the blushes of the production crew. Genet was obsessed (certainly by the time of writing this play) with the darker corners of human sexuality and sexual instinct. It seems an odd choice of play for those involved if these themes are going to remain virtually unexplored.

The production is muddy in parts, and not in the way Genet intended. The assumed logistical restrictions of the production meant that some of the more flamboyant moments of the original play (and the male characters) have been left off stage. But the all-female cast who remain does a marvellous job. Solange’s monologue, which requires a daring amount of dynamism and stamina from the actor, is delivered by Olwen Rees with the energy it asks for. Rosamund Shelley as Madame is succulently shallow, a spoiled erratic upper-class child-grown-old. It is Genet’s genius, and Shelley’s excellence, that means we do not hate her as we expect to before we meet her; but we pity her her ignorance of the twisted evils of her servants. Christine Pritchard is equally fleet-of-foot in a difficult role, shifting from naivety to the eye of the sinister storm that surrounds the stage throughout.

Theatr Pena’s The Trojan Women, a relatively large production, seemed to fall short due to the unevenness of the lead performances. The Maids, however, as a small cast balanced just right. The confusions lie in the bigger picture. The chanteuse and accordionist who greet the audience is an ill-judged atmospheric device that suggests too strongly the dream over the reality.

Genet’s The Maids is a play not for the faint-hearted, full of blood symbolism, filth, incest, murder and the irredeemable corruption of the human condition. This production seems to have struggled with the question, ‘How far do we go?’ The answer, particularly with Jean Genet, is ‘All the way.’ Theatr Pena, rather timidly, disappointingly, pulled up short.