Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Maids @ Dundee Rep

In the last fifteen minutes of Dundee Rep's production of Genet's The Maids, there is an abrupt coup de théâtre. It is as if the self-conscious theatricality that Genet imbued into the script - which had been largely ignored by director Eve Jamieson - had been saved up for this finale, in which the painted backdrop falls to reveal a plain brick wall, a character walks back on stage in a white coat (suggestive of medical authority) and removes the battling protagonists into perspex boxes. In itself, it powerfully represents the arrival of old age to the maids, who have been enjoying their erotic games of murder and submission but suddenly find themselves geriatric and shoved aside.

It's deeply unsatisfying, not least because there had been no suggestion, up to that point, that the sumptuous scenography and boisterous role-playing represented a fragile veneer of theatrical fantasy: by suddenly throwing in a bold declaration that theatre is not merely a mirror of real life, The Maids makes a point that seems trite against the fluctuating power relationships and political complaints that Jamieson and the cast have been making explicit. The pathos and the melodrama - when a speech is amplified over one character's glorious posturing - are hardly earned and undermine the psychological horror that the production reveals in Genet's script. 

Yet for most of the show, Jamieson's interpretation does not dwell on the alienation that Genet intended the audience to feel. Alongside his exploration of racism, Les Nègres (which is unlikely to be produced today because it opens up some problematic issues of representation), The Maids insists on provoking the audience to recognise the theatricality of performance. The maids themselves were written for male actors in female drag - without ever referencing the cross-dressing in the script - and the revolving role-plays switches master and submissive with a ferocious glee. While all-female casting for The Maids is commonplace, and in Dundee Rep's case, a welcome opportunity to see three remarkable actors tackle meaty parts, by rejecting Genet's intentions, the production is permitted a more naturalistic dramaturgy.

If the sexual perversity of the characters remains evident - the maids allude to states of ecstasy and clearly feel a thrill at the thought of usurping their mistress, dominating each other, being dominated and even, finally, caressed by the executioner when they imagine punishment for their deeds - Jamieson emphasises the political subtext. 

The oppression of the maids becomes allegorical, a description of the relationship between the working and aristocratic class: Emily Winter's mistress vacillates between self-absorption and a preening fascination with the maids' goodwill, while the maids fantasize about a funeral in which
the their mistress is forced to mingle with the working classes. The set - an opulent bedroom, festooned with flowers - captures the financial disparities, the power of home decoration to enforce social control and the stultifying presence of authority ingrained into the architecture. 

Genet's preoccupation with the erotic manifestation of class oppression lends Jamieson's interpretation a clear-sighted analysis of the mechanism by which the maids ensure their own defeat. While they plot in vain against their tormentor - attempting murder, informing against her lover - they recognise their complicity in the maintenance of power relations, even enjoying acts of debasement simultaneously as threats against the mistress and themselves. They might bicker about each others' failures to enact their plans, but they indulge them, distracted by the chase for sexual release and unable to imagine a revolution that has not had its terns dictated by crime magazines. Their paranoia after the failure - one maid, Clare, moans that 'the objects' conspired to reveal their plans - only heightens their excitement, and the collapse of the scheme degenerates into more role-playing and wilder fantasy.

Dundee Rep's dramaturgy, which replaces Genet's shifting gender identities with a focus on the characters, their political status and their limitations, offers a naturalistic reading of the script. Its strength - made more evident by the solid performances - however, does not allow for the kind of finale that attempts to reclaim Genet's alienated theatricality. Alongside a moment when an open cupboard reveals Ikea shelving behind the elegant boudoir, this sudden attempt to challenge the audience's perception only introduces a further theme, increases the sympathy for the now inarticulate maids - their lines and movement are guided by the returning mistress who becomes their medical carer. The awkward break exposes the tension between Jamieson's direction and the integrity of the script. 

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