The Maids is based on the true crime of two sisters who, as maids, murdered their employer’s wife and daughter in 1933. The play is written by French dramatist Jean Genet, who was no stranger to spending time behind bars. Using the Papin sisters as his inspiration, Genet’s The Maids is a dark, unnerving play in which two maids, sisters Solange and Claire, construct elaborate role-playing, plotting and staging the murder of their mistress. The main theatre of Manchester’s HOME underwent an impressive transformation to convert its traditional proscenium arch stage into an intimate in-the-round arena for us to witness Solange and Claire’s dangerous scheming.
Genet’s play cleverly juxtaposes the sisters’ role-playing with reality, exposing the contrast between how the maids act when their mistress is away and their behaviour when she returns. This juxtaposition blurs the distinction between their masochistic games and reality, leaving its audience to figure out for themselves where the boundaries of their role-playing are. When you think that you have figured it out, there are twists and turns that constantly keep you guessing. Genet’s multi-layered constructs of reality and role-play cause the narrative to become confusing, as you never really know what is happening, or whether it is true or not. The ambiguity is uncomfortable and unnerving, yet creates thrilling theatre that keeps you on edge.
This anxious feeling is embedded before the play begins, as the three actors, faceless, in orange prison suits, toy with the audience. They are chilling, eerily creepy characters that unsettle you before the play begins. When they take off their prison uniforms, revealing their maid costumes, you breathe a sigh of relief, knowing their disguised, faceless identities are not real. Even as the play begins, you can never truly relax though. Tension is kept high throughout The Maids, as flowers with sharp stems are thrown into the floor like darts, and Danny Lee Wynter‘s mistress nonchalantly curls her eyelashes with a sharp safety pin, precariously pointed within centimetres of her eyeball. It is almost unbearable to watch. Excruciating moments like this magnify the tension built by the play’s disjointed narrative and keep you uncomfortably captivated. The Maids is tense, suspenseful and thrilling from before the play even starts, right through to its confusing, climactic ending. It is only when the lights come up, and the actors take their bows, that you can relax.
The state of heightened tension is superbly reflected in Ruari Murchison‘s stunning production design. A multi-media environment of hyper-surveillance is built through the use of television screens which present live footage relayed by the several cameras positioned throughout the stage. These cameras are used as mirrors by the three characters, and provide even more intimacy than the in-the-round staging can provide. Inviting the audience to become spectators of Solange and Claire’s twisted role-playing instantly makes us complicit in their plans to murder their mistress. Sand falls from the ceiling, representing a timer, stressing the short time they have to enact their plans before the mistress returns. Again, this striking image keeps you on edge, not knowing when the timer will run out, or whether Solange and Claire will be caught plotting their mistress’ demise. Murchison’s design brilliantly adds to the thrilling tension of Genet’s play, deftly building anxiety and apprehension.
When Genet wrote his play, he intended that the three roles would be played by men. Director Lily Sykes obeys his wishes, using male actors to fulfil the roles of Solange, Claire and the mistress. Sykes’ production never disguises the fact that they are male actors. Without wigs, the three actors wear dresses, soften their voices, alter their mannerisms and movements, but visually remain male. This blurs the boundaries between reality and illusion even further. The trio are incredibly skilled actors. Jake Fairbrother (Claire) and Luke Mullins (Solange), shift seamlessly between role-playing and their own characters, making it difficult to distinguish where the games end and the reality begins.
Danny Lee Wynter is also fantastic as the outrageously eccentric mistress, who adds much needed comic relief, yet also gains our sympathy with a sincere devotion to a husband, wrongfully imprisoned. Wynter’s mistress is so likeable that you feel conflicted knowing that her maids are cruelly plotting to murder her. Wynter’s mistress clearly has affection for Claire and Solange, despite getting their names mixed up, and it is difficult to know where your allegiances should lie.
The Maids is a dark, tense, unnerving thriller that keeps you on edge, guessing what will happen and who to side with. Constantly subverting expectations, it is confusingly thought provoking, yet utterly captivating.