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Review: The Maids Serves Up Psychosexual Power Games

The Maids, Trafalgar Studios ★★★★☆

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 14 months ago
Review: The Maids Serves Up Psychosexual Power Games The Maids, Trafalgar Studios 4
Laura Carmichael, Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton in The Maids. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Now in his third season at Trafalgar Studios, director Jamie Lloyd has attracted the likes of box-office draws Martin Freeman, James McAvoy and John Simm for his incisive revivals of Shakespeare and modern classics.

Now three actors from hit TV series — Uzo Aduba (double Emmy Award winner for Orange Is the New Black), Zawe Ashton (currently appearing in the final season of Fresh Meat) and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey) — star in Jean Genet’s challenging psychosexual drama The Maids.

First staged in 1947 the play was inspired by the infamous Papin sisters murder case in France in 1933, but it uses that as a starting point for a subversive exploration of role-playing and power relations.

The maids Claire and Solange play sadomasochistic games in Madame’s boudoir while she is out, with Claire flouncing around in her mistress’s blonde wig, red dress, jewellery and make-up while putting her older sister Solange playing ‘Claire’ in her place.

This well-rehearsed ritual leads to Solange/Claire strangling Claire/Madame but always stops just before its ‘denouement’ as the game is cut short by their mistress’s return.

It seems that Claire’s anonymous letter about their master’s alleged criminal activities have put him in prison, but when he phones to say that he is coming out on bail determined to find out who informed on him they realise they may be running out of time for real.

This vernacular, expletive-strewn translation from Andrew Upton and Benedict Andrews, first used three years ago in a Sydney Theatre Company production starring Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, gives the dialogue a contemporary feel.

Casting two women of colour in service to a wealthy white mistress inevitably raises issues of a race as well as a class divide, with Lloyd seeming to have set the play in southern United States where racial tensions have persisted long after the official ending of the segregation era.

With the audience seated on two sides of the stage, on which a gilded, open-sided structure like an empty four-poster bed stands, there is a sense of voyeuristically observing disturbing, intimate rites being enacted — though sometimes the play-acting could have a bit more of a dangerous edge.

The blurring of fantasy with reality is reinforced by designer Soutra Gilmour’s bestrewn pink paper rose petals, Jon Clark’s lurid lighting and Ben and Max Ringham’s background disco beats.

Ashton gives a strong performance as Claire, escaping from her miserable life in service for brief moments of cavorting make-believe like a drag queen but frightened underneath.

In a less showy role, Aduba also impresses as Solange, tenderly protective towards her younger sister yet burning with resentment for their long-running exploitation.

Carmichael also does well as the spoilt, condescending Madame (much vainer than Lady Edith) who has no thought that those ‘beneath’ her might be plotting to take her down.

The Maids is on at Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall, until 21 May. Tickets are £29.50-£69.50. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 01 March 2016