Stephen Hopley seems to have something of an obsession with horror; dark themes; theatre of the absurd. Even his Shakespearean outings seem to draw on these predilections. And that's ok with me. His latest offering, in Tap Gallery Theatre's tiny, illegal-abortion-clinic-like backroom space, is Jean Genet's The Maids; Les Bonnes, if you're genuinely French, or just pretentious. This is Bernard Frechtman's translation and one can't imagine a more potent or vital one, whatever is lost.
Genet was allegedly inspired by the true-life legend of the Papin sisters, who actually murdered their employer. The gist and centre of Genet's telling, however, revolves around the serialised, acted-out fantasy of Solange and Clair, who imaginatively plot the demise of their mistress. Colourfully murderous methodology aside, the most salient aspect of the play is its political allegory: there is underlying anger and bitter resentment in Genet's sisters, who serve as surrogates for his own barely-contained outrage.
Genet's outrage, of course, was justified; on his own behalf, let alone on behalf of workers exploited routinely by a cavalier bourgeoisie. His own mother was a prostitute, immersing the young Genet in all the sordidness that lifestyle can so often imply. But not for long, since she fostered him while still a baby. This might've proved more stable, if not for the fact he was shuffled from home to home, almost endlessly, throughout his youth, with predictable outcomes.
At just fifteen, he was falsely imprisoned for stealing and was so incensed by the grossness of the injustice, determined to actually become a thief, as revenge on the corrupt society in which he found himself. Of course, life was never going to be easy, even if he'd chosen the straight-and-narrow, for he was a gay man and the straight, at least, was out of the question. Acting on his impulses saw him discharged from the foreign legion and, it being the last refuge of the disenfranchised, left him precious little room to manoeuvre. His was a life in and out of prison but, happily for us, he communicated his disgust in ink, rather than blood. Indeed, this seems to have been his mission & message; Solange and Clair his media.
There's a dignity in the maids' cruel plotting and its disturbing detail: their role-playing does way with the necessity to replicate what the Papins found irresistible, inevitable and just. Genet, thus, seems to have been talking to himself as much as us, in a duplicitous exercise of the personally therapeutic and universally philosophical. But even if one puts such speculation to one side, one's still left with a colourful, characterful and compelling play.
Hopley's stage has been cleverly and minimally propped. Brinley Meyer's Madame is little more than a cameo and one wonders whether Genet might've achieved something all the more enriched and powerful by omitting her appearance. This might, moreover, have made a judicious, courageous, inspired (if controversial) act of editorship on behalf of the director.
As it is, Enigma's production is half-good. Emily Elise is almost exemplary as Clair: her assumption of the role, not to mention her mastery of voice, put many a full-time professional (and I include quite eminent examples) to shame. But regrettably, Alison Lee Rubie, as counterpart Solange, struggles (valiantly) to convince and has a grating tone; her delivery further afflicted by an apparent lack of confidence and surrender to the worst excesses of the vernacular, which have so little relevance to or bearing upon any reading of this work.
I'm an admirer of Hopley's work, generally, but in this instance, it's almost as if Jekyll and Hyde were at the helm, given the glaring, deeply puzzling disparities in performance.
Still worthwhile, though.
by Jean Genet
Directed by Steven Hopley
Venue: The TAP Gallery | 278 Palmer Street, Darlinghurst
Dates: March 13 – 18, 2012
Tickets: $25 Adult / $20 Concession / $15 Preview
Bookings: www.moshtix.com.au | 1300 GETTIX