There’s a dreadful moment during the beginning scene of Jean Genet’s The Maids when we’re led to believe we’re in store for two hours of over-exaggerated, highly affected acting and farce. Those fears are soon quelled as the formative personas of the actors’ fall and it’s revealed we’re witnessing a role-play. Bedraggled sisters Solange and Claire are mimicking their apparently formidable ‘Madame’. The role-play serve to enact fantasies of fatally silencing her exuberant mannerisms and histrionic outcries - a game we know they’ve played time and time again with equal measures of self-hatred and lustful vengeance.
Where the fantasy begins and ends is one of the many mysteries of The Maids. Madame seemingly inspires fear, hatred and loathing. She is an oppressor; her infernal reign has continued for far too long and the servile sisters must emancipate themselves through pre-meditated murder. But is the Madame, who is entirely absent for two-thirds of the production, really a deranged and degrading tyrant who has worn the sisters into psychosis through subjugation? The script is interlaced with suggestions that it is mere circumstance and hierarchy that has driven the sisters to such drastic measures.
Glowing red lamps and dimming stage lights add to the apprehension. When Solange and Claire cease their impersonations and recriminations the entire stage illuminates to crisply highlight their reality. A choice of reds and pinks are ominous and invoke a hellish atmosphere.
Katy Mulhern as younger sister Clare is a constantly diminutive stance and almost feral with agitation. Kelly Costfield’s Solange is in a permanent stupor of defeat. They refer to themselves as muck and when not in Madame-mode act as if there were an invisible barrier between them and a drawing room filled with finery. Both performances are deranged and neurotic, which facilitates an open interpretation as to whether it is being lower in the pecking order that has maddened the pair.
The performances in Genet’s bleak comedy can’t be faulted: Mulhern and Costfield are stressful to watch and the audience are not allowed respite, just as the titular sisters are never relieved of their weathering existence. The stage is an agonisingly display of taut jaws and tense, arched backs for almost too long. There is no let up from the shrill distress for a majority of the play. This is no surprise considering it is always at the brink of murder. Nevertheless, by the beginning of Act 2 it becomes vital for someone to die or laugh to cut through the tension.
Chris Stevenson as The Madame (an inspired casting) brings roaring laughter and instantly dismantles the stifling ambience. Stevenson in full drag is believable as a wealthy harridan. He also crucially leaves confusion in his wake: why exactly do the sisters mean her mortal harm? She is irritating and tiring but not the vindictive despot we would have imagined her to be. To deduce if the maids’ motivation is just it is necessary to scrutinise every interaction and shudder to a closer degree. Before Madame’s appearance it was indubitable.
While acting, staging and direction is near unimpeachable, The Maids in itself is not an entirely enjoyable production. The script is grippingly ambiguous and the climax a clever muddle of reality, fantasy and the perception of both. It is also, however, a predictable climax in its execution. Combined with a premise of constant duress and confusing dialogue, the production becomes a concentrated commitment rather than a natural, flowing instance of theatre. That being said, Pandemonium Performance Company have staged a nuanced production rife for interpretation and discussion.