Seduce This: A Review of 'The Maids'
Shannon Friday gets lost in a rapid-fire adaptation of Jean Genet's class satire The Maids.
Seduction. It’s imagining the end of the fantasy before you experience it; quivering in anticipation, waiting for delivery of an unspoken promise. Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids, directed here by Sam Phillips (The Angry Brigade), starts with a seduction. Madame, regal in a shimmering blue silk robe, commands her chamber like Cleopatra, huge, powerful, castigating her maid for wearing her rubber scrubbing gloves out of the kitchen. Madame sits on her bed - enormous and dominating the centre of the FLUX space - as if it were her throne. She orders her maid to kneel and clean her shoe. The maid desperately polishes and shines; Madame denigrates her for her filth. She sneers: “Do you think I find it pleasant to know my foot is shrouded in your saliva?”
I’m drawn in. I’m disgusted by Madame’s mistreatment of her maid but want to worship her all the same. Her power is alluring. I crave an equal power to match it, and her maid starts biting back, declaring that she’s “tired of being an object of scorn,” and I’m rooting for her now, hoping that she’ll resolve this tension as she climbs on top of her mistress, hands grasping as if... as if to strangle her...
When an alarm interrupts the game. These two women are not master and servant, but maids and sisters. Claire (Batanai Mashingaidze) and Solange (Keagan Carr Fransch) fantasize about murdering their mistress. The Maids does this again and again; it draws us into a fantasy before twisting the basis of that fantasy, revealing its cruelty and also the limits of its escapism. But then Claire introduces a very real threat – a cup of poisoned tea – the boundary between play and action blurs.
[The casting is] a deliberate commentary on racial and socioeconomic inequality, amplifying Genet’s concerns about the effect of power on the disenfranchised.
The potential attraction of the seduction contrasts with the direct messaging in the casting. Phillips and his team take a note from last year’s British production, starring Zawe Ashton and Uzo Aduba, casting two women of colour as the maids and a white woman as Madame. It's a deliberate commentary on racial and socioeconomic inequality, amplifying Genet’s concerns about the effect of power on the disenfranchised.
The casting also complicates that initial reaction, underlining how political identities can be entrenched and made an excuse for injustice. The opening image of a radiant queen, owning her physical space and power, is glorious, but in the presence of their white mistress, Solange and Claire are denied their power and sense of self. Instead, they take turns impersonating Madame and each other, abusing and fighting with other voices. As Madame, Claire trades her worn sweats for a shimmery purple gown; Mashingaidze radiates power as if she has never known fear, even as Claire oozes contempt for her sister. Solange, the mousier of the two, is always insufficient; in her fantasies, she takes on Claire’s identity – always about to rebel, about to speak her piece, about to strangle Madame. Those voices start to bleed into the real, the boundaries between the fantasy and self distressingly ill-defined.
All oversized fur coat and whimsical passion, the real Madame (Stevie Hancox-Monk) is unexpected, a flighty woman-child straight out of The Real Housewives. She's not as maliciously cruel as the maids have painted her, but she is casually vicious: giving gifts to salve her conscience one minute and taking them back moments later, forgetting she ever gave them in the first place. She tosses out insults like little bombs, callous to the craters they leave. The maids try to control her chaos, but her oblivion stands as the truest mark of her privilege. She doesn't have to care, so she doesn't.
The seduction is traded for a blistering pace the moment we find out about Madame. Fransch and Mashingaidze fire lines off at a dazzling pace, blazing through Genet’s extravagant and dynamic imagery. “I’m sick of seeing my image thrown back at me by a mirror, like a bad smell,” Claire sneers at Solange, neither smell nor sight enough to express her disgust. It’s slippery language, and we need more time to grasp it and form our own images, or, perhaps, a more extreme physicality to keep up with the twisting shapes. Otherwise we’re just glossing over nuance, emphasizing who is speaking over what is being said – or, more importantly, in whose imagined voice. While it keeps things moving forward, it also keeps us from getting deep into how entwined the fantasies have become in the sisters’ real identities.
It’s almost as if this production is afraid that the audience will be attracted to the role of the oppressor and so keeps the audience at arm's length.
Nor are the audience ever really invited into the space. Patrick Carroll’s arrangement provides all the tools; we sit in shallow rows lining the sides of the bed and Janis Cheng’s lighting spills onto most of the audience, illuminating our faces. Still, despite the intimacy, the actors never quite talk to us; they prefer imaginary figures in the corners of the stage. Finally left alone and freed from the limitations of her mistress, sister, and hierarchy, Solange erupts into a blazing celebration of proud defiance as she describes and defends her fantasy murder. Fransch flies about the stage, pinning her imaginary foes in place with a burning glare until she's said exactly what she's wanted to say for a long, long time. Fransch has the chops to put the pedal to the floor and ride that ferocity right into her audience, challenging us and our pleasure or shame at watching her defiance. But Phillips directs Fransch to send her ire to the corners of the room and her majestic monologue is wasted, flowing down the aisles rather than soaking us in our seats.
It’s almost as if this production is afraid that the audience will be attracted to the role of the oppressor and so keeps the audience at arm's length. Phillips’ production shies away from that horrible truth that a lot of us don’t want to admit: people want to be powerful because it can feel good to be the one on top, even if it's false or wrong or hurtful. This distance keeps us from really absorbing the politics behind The Maids’ nihilistic, tragic ending: Claire takes on Madame's personhood to annihilate herself. Claire forces Solange to give “Madame” the poisoned tea, exploiting Solange’s inescapable obedience to suicide as her mirror image. The fantasy that once felt good turns inward and becomes destructive.
The Maids isn’t quite the gut-punch it wants to be. The performances command attention (and all three actresses are commanding as hell, make no doubt), but we’re held at arms-length by the cramped, rushed scene work and our uncertain presence in the room. Genet seduces the audience in before perverting the fantasy and showing the harm of acting on those wishes. Phillips and his team are too skittish; they resist getting close to the fantasy. Once the production stops luring its audience in close to that poisonous truth – that people can exploit and enjoy injustice if they’re on top – it also loses the chance to demonstrate what the bad taste that poison leaves.
The Maids runs from June 20-24 at FLUX at Wellington Museum.
For more information about The Maids, go here.