The Maids review: a daring take on a dark, masochistic play

Over the past few years there has been a noticeable increase in diversity within the London theatre scene, be it at the National (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) or at the Orange Tree Theatre (The Rolling Stone). With #oscarssowhite recently blowing up the internet, diversity in the theatrical arts has never been more prominent. The Maids is a play that uses big name television actresses on stage – women who happen to be of differing ethnicities and backgrounds. Furthermore, it explores the class and racial divisions of the mid 20th century that unfortunately still resonate with audiences today.

The Jamie Lloyd Company is one with a reputation for pushing the boundaries of contemporary theatre in a way that can rather controversial at times. The Maids is no different. It stars Uzo Aduba (Orange Is The New Black) Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat) and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey).

The original play was written by Jean Genet in 1947 as an exploration of class division but this run, the first in the West End for 20 years (using the modified script of Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton) adds a new divide, one of race – specifically in the United States. Aduba and Ashton play sisters that are maids of colour in servitude of their wealthy white “mistress” and with thick, passionate American accents, these women toy with dark themes of resentment, frustration, murder and revenge.

What immediately strikes you about this production is the powerful imagery created by the lighting and sound. The audience is jolted into a voyeuristic world in which we peek into the secretive and morose world of Claire and Solange, two maids playing a twisted game of dress up in their mistress’ clothes. Every moment feels like a photo opportunity with dramatic gestures and symbolism used throughout in a manner that engages the audience rather than distances them.

Although there are moments of confusion near the start, by the end of the first act the fog seems to clear somewhat regarding who is who and why they are doing what they are doing. The two actors on stage bring bucketfuls of energy and physical immersion into their characters. Ashton brings a Real Housewives of Atlanta Southern Belle glamour to her impersonation scenes, with full-bodied sass. These impersonations are of her playing her mistress and admittedly contribute to the mentioned confusion at the beginning; however that does not stop it being a very enjoyable and risqué experience.

“Ashton brings a Real Housewives of Atlanta Southern Belle glamour to her impersonation scenes, with full-bodied sass”

Aduba is arresting in her performance of a woman with a fire in her belly. She is the sister who revels in catharsis, exploring the turmoil caused by their status in society. Out of the two sisters she is the eldest, the most critical and ultimately dominates as she captivates her sister and the audience to come on board the plot against the mistress.

What she concludes must be done brings in Carmichael’s character into the fore. Although the story really gravitates around the two maids in a way that I found unexpected, (with Carmichael advertised just as much as the other two) her real presence exists in her absence. Her character is one that is a constant looming presence on the women’s lives and when she does appear a great fanfare is required for her to live up to the hype she manages to generate in her absence.

The mistress is part of the caricature of her class. With a sing-song accent she commands the attention of her staff and toys with their affection like a little girl attacking the hair of her favourite Barbie doll. Carmichael’s performance is less commanding than the others but this may be due to the fact that the story is played to the audience from the perspective of the sisters. The mistress is the other, the superstar, the one so close yet so, so far away from their own grounded reality on the dirty floor, sweeping the flower petals away from her feet.

“The mistress is the other, the superstar, the one so close yet so, so far away from their own grounded reality on the dirty floor, sweeping the flower petals away from her feet”

The concept of moving The Maids from France, where it was originally set, to America is a really successful one. It translates beautifully. What I found most striking was its relevance to the current state of affairs in America today. With the prevalence of racial discrimination, especially in the Trump campaign, there appears to be a growing outcry within the arts, especially music (Beyoncé’s Formation, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly to name but a few). The Maids picks apart this difficult subject matter using words written around 60 years ago; it is somewhat worrying to think that society has not progressed enough in such an expanse of time for present day social divides to still be described using the same language.

“With the prevalence of racial discrimination, in America, especially in the Trump campaign, there appears to be a growing outcry within the arts, especially music”

This is a daring take on a very dark, masochistic play and one which has made itself relevant today with its use of updated language and open explorations of expressing the self by using the body. Tickets are a little steep (from £29) but worth it for the stellar cast. Due to the way it is staged, even the cheap seats aren’t “cheap” in terms of feeling involved with the story. However, due to some debatable lighting choices in some scenes, I would recommend sitting as near the stage as you can, the closer the better. Just try not to get hit in the face by too many petals!

The Maids is playing at Trafalgar Studios till 21st May

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