The premise is satisfyingly straightforward: two maids, plotting to murder their mistress – plus a bucket load of jealousy, lust and hatred. If it sounds like this might veer towards the melodramatic, be assured that all three actors do their very best to save it from that cliff edge and the script seemed, on the whole, to keep its feet on the ground even whilst its head was busy daydreaming in the sky.
The casting is perfect. Zoe Bullock, slouching about the stage, simmering with self-hatred, is towered over by Hannah Gliksten as her poised sister. Alice Porter, as ‘Madame’, was a living lesson in deportment and elocution. It’s the physicality, so carefully managed by director Christopher Adams, that produces such a striking contrast between each of the characters. When Gliksten takes on the role of ‘Madame’, she glides about the stage while Bullock stomps around her and both sisters are subsequently upstaged by the elegant movements of their mistress.
Despite strong acting from all three of the cast, there’s a slight struggle to sidestep the histrionic tone of the script and produce performances that really feel true to life. This is inevitable since, in part, the script is a deliberately surreal exploration of twisted fantasies. Rather like the murderous sisters, it seems relentlessly focussed – here on unsettling the audience and pushing the atmosphere all the way past ‘unpleasant’ on to uncomfortably claustrophobic. Whether this can be kept up for the full run-time is uncertain but each actor was largely convincing enough to carry the grave subject matter.
The space is ideal for all this and what seemed most promising were the design plans for the show: a central arena for performance; audience on three sides and much of the set and props nestled amongst them or hanging about them; a bed, raised and centred like a sacrificial altar, taking centre stage. There will undoubtedly be much to experience here.
‘Enjoyment’ might be another thing altogether: the dialogue, though beautifully delivered, is morbidly unconcerned with an audience’s sensibilities and the characters are unsympathetic monsters. At no point did I empathise with any of them and, if this was perhaps because I wasn’t meant to, then I did start to wonder why the hell I cared who was killing who and indeed what the point of the play actually was.
Success will depend on the cast’s ability to keep up the tension so fiercely at work in the scenes I saw and to make sure that such constant intensity does not collapse on itself and become unconvincing tedium. There’s great potential here. The acting is consistently exceptional. The direction is bold, self-assured and always purposeful. The challenge is to keep the emotional stakes high throughout the whole performance.
The Maids plays at the Michael Pilch Studio (Balliol College) from Tuesday – Saturday of 8th week.
PHOTOS/ Angelika Benz