Set in traverse, running to just over ninety minutes, there’s nowhere for an audience to escape from this mesmerizing production; it sucks you into its claustrophobic world with a palpable desperation. The plot of The Maids is very simple: two house-servants plot to kill their mistress, but the story is a difficult one to tell as identities between maid and mistress – even between the maids themselves – become obscured, and with it, their intentions and motivations difficult to chart. It’s a script that’s only accessible through hours of table-work, a master-feat for director, Christopher Adams to make less daunting for his three actresses in this complex work of sadomasochistic suffocation.
For the most part, Adams succeeds in inducting the audience into this bizarre set of circumstances that deliberately isolates with surreal rhetorical dialogue, but, at times, the stakes of the play were difficult to discern so that it became difficult to feel as if you could engage with the action on any level beyond an ignorant voyeurism. Of course, this is not a critique but a fact of the play that seems to resist both naturalism and theatricality. The stage is used boldly and inventively without artifice. A beautiful moment between the two maids, one cradling the other upon a sacrificial bed-altar, is interrupted by one maid’s declaration that “the moment is too beautiful”, and, therefore, must end.
The acting is of the highest standard, and it’s refreshing to see a play in Oxford that would pass the Bechdel Test – despite playwright Genet’s insistence that the roles would ideally be performed by men. Both Hannah Gliksten (Claire) and Zoe Bullock (Solange) have a deliberate but natural delivery that works well with this thoughtfully poetic translation. Their struggle for dominance and for identity without relation to the other is beautifully portrayed. They explore themes of self-loathing and co-dependency without becoming didactic. The relationship between master-servant resists stereotype as Alice Porter (Madame) never descends into parody but ingrains her theatrical affectations into a very truthful and recognizable depiction.
Despite a lack of clear story-telling in this production, The Maids can stand alone as a series of fleeting moments – each a mixture of dream and reality, of truth and theatrics – but whilst there were some awe-inspiring moments, others couldn’t live up to those that came before. A nail-biting tension was commendably kept up throughout the beginning of the play, but the exit of Madame signalled a fall in energy when the removal of the consummation of malice and wrath ought to have heightened it, putting a dampener on what is a remarkably professional and immersive production.
**** (4 Stars)
PHOTO/ Angelika Benz