The Maids is a 20th Century classic of French theatre. Currently it is being staged at Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford in a production directed by Samir Bhamra.
Genet’s play is, in no particular order, a drama about role-play, anger, sexual jealousy fulfilment and violence, class conflict and aspiration, criminality and pleasure.
Although the characters in the play are ostensibly female Genet wanted them to be played by men. He isn’t actually that interested in women. This production had men in the roles for its first week and women for the second. It had also been transposed to India. I saw the production featuring men.
It seems ungenerous to criticise too much. However, one thing soon became clear: this is a play that needs really strong performances. It also demands that there is a clear distinction between the fantasy lives and reality inhabited by the characters. Unfortunately this is not conveyed at all clearly. For example, there is little sense that the ‘maids’ get actual pleasure from their enactments of their employer’s behaviour towards and treatment of them.
Technically the production is also disappointing. The lighting transitions between the maids’ real and fantasy lives are disconcertingly slow; the background music disturbingly abrupt.
The acting is all on a level – again there is no distinction between fantasy and ‘reality’. There is a lack of clarity in diction at times as well, so words are swallowed and meaning lost. And the choice to play ‘Madame’ as David Walliams was quite simply wrong.
Despite my criticisms I would, if I could, go back to the Watermans Arts Centre next week to see how this company’s female version of Genet’s masterpiece worked.