The flyer that The Bakehouse Theatre issued for The Maids says “The audience is ... never certain what is true and what is illusion.” So true. That is why I read the play after I’d seen it. Just to be sure. Cate Blanchett, who played the role in Sydney said, “It’s such a labyrinth. There are times I felt like I was getting lost within it.”
I soon began to realise that the clever set is a giveaway (Set design Tony Knight and Producer Matthew Shannon). There are many long mirrors separated by red flowers – a house of mirrors. Jean Genet who wrote it was a homosexual criminal who lived as a thief and prostitute, served two prison terms and was about to serve a third when he was rescued by Jean Cocteau and friends because he recognised his play-writing talent. The basis of the play was a real, cruelly ritualistic murder by two maids of their mistress and her daughter. Even though that happened in 1933, the play was ahead of its time when it opened in Paris in 1947. It is an angry, violent play involving just three women – two maids, aged 30 and 35, in the opulent home of Madame in Paris. It is an exposé of two lesbian sisters in an incestuous relationship of love and hate, the pent-up fury of the oppressed and hatred of class distinction. It’s about fantasy, sexual desire, envy, power, dominance and submission. It calls on two of the women in it to understand and portray at least two characters each within themselves and to reveal them tooth, nail and claw. They do.
First we see Madame, full of vitriol as she demeans and withers her maid Claire. “Just look at you! How big you are! Admit it! ... Ah! Ah! you are hideous ... you hate me don’t you. You crush me with your attentions and your humbleness.” There’s something about an incriminating letter that Madame is said to have written to the police about her husband and he now languishes in jail. But, hold on, intrigued audience, it’s not Madame, it’s Claire and it’s not Claire, it’s her sister Solange. The play within a play goes on until Madame is heard arriving and then, three deliberate actions begin to put things in perspective. Beautiful 25 year old Madame takes off a glove and drops it on the floor, then the other and then her fur scarf. Like automatons, the grovelling maids pick them up. She recoils angrily when one of them brushes her hand against theirs. When she’s gone they take on the mantle she shrouds them with when she degrades them, swearing to “become one in our foul stench, our glorious rituals and our hatred of you.”
But, alone again, they argue about who’s strongest, bravest and more noble in a fierce volley of spitting anger, threatening each other with a fiery verbal display of vitriol – and then revert to their plan of the macabre death of Madame with phenobarbitone.
Solange says, “I’m not afraid of you. I know you hate me and that you’re a sneak but, be careful now. I am older than you.”
“You tried to kill her.”
“Are you accusing me?”
“Don’t deny it. I saw you. And I was frightened, Solange. Through her it was me you were aiming at. I am the one who’s in danger. ..... Where you botched it, I’ll succeed.” And then dreamily, “We’ll carry her off to the woods and, under the fir trees, we’ll cut her to pieces by the light of the moon.”
Fantasy? Reality? Madness? Who kills who? Do reality and fantasy meld? Does anyone die? You’d better go to The Bakehouse to see three splendid performances by Kate Bonney as Claire who gives a sexy and alluring performance from start to finish as the sister who lives so vividly in her other romanticised world, Peta Shannon as Solange, the one who is sharper, never forgetting, eyes ablaze with angry fervour and Angelika Bailey, rich and careless, sometimes generous and kind and often crass and cruel as Madame. This is a very good production of this complex and much celebrated play, expertly directed by Tony Knight.
Scarlett Entertainment presents
by Jean Genet
Director Tony Knight
Venue: Bakehouse Theatre | 255 Angas Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 14 – 23 June 2018
Tickets: $25 – $29