Maids of dishonour

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The Maidsdir Yashar Alishenas25 – 29 OctoberBurton TaylorSex sells but playwright Jean Genet believes that lesbian sex sells even better. Loosely based on the 1933 real-life story of the Papin sisters who murdered their female employers, The Maids is otherwise entirely fictionalised and Genet formulates a tale of a dominating mistress and two French maids, who are not only sisters, but also lesbians.Theatrical criticism has bracketed the notorious Genet within the absurdist school of theatre, yet such a vague categorisation falls short of encapsulating the biting intensity of this unique playwright, novelist, thief and rentboy. The Maids is among his best-known theatrical works in which the sisters, Claire (Helen Winston) and Solange (Serena Martin) work as housemaids to their impossibly ‘beautiful and good, mistress (Jamie Gaw). However, these adult sisters remain stuck in their childhood and, devoid of any male contact in the cell-like confines of their domestic workplace, games of Doctors and Nurses have become replaced by pseudo-erotic renditions of Mistress and Maid.The play opens into just such a scene of sisterly role-play, with Claire dressing up in her mistress’ clothes while Solange acts the part of downtrodden maid. The scene is initially bewildering to the audience, but director Yashar Alishenas soon clarifies the women’s situation, cautiously revealingtheir precarious relationship which hovers uncomfortably between sisterly affection and fantasised eroticism. The vicious playfulness between Claire and Solange is recognisably that of siblings, yet the power of these play-acting scenes is never quite recreated in those that jump back to reality,and the ‘real’ passionate outbursts seem flat in comparison. This is a challenging piece for any actress, but for young students performing in 21st century Oxford, the task is that much more overwhelming. Yet Winston apparently tackles her role with ease, turning in a performanceof wild femininity and brutal sensuality, utterly compelling from the outset. Martin reacts well as the submissive relation, creating a foil for Winston’s haughty authority, while Gaw truly lives up to the hype of the beautiful lady of the house. Winston and Martin have an obvious rapport,and while scenes with all three characters can lack the depth of these dualogues, Winston’s commanding presence onstage regularly buoys any lacklustre moments.The actresses are choreographed well within the thrust-staging space and there are some other nice directional touches, such as the repeated motif of Claire turning away from the audience, only to have her image reflected back at them by a dressing table mirror. Yet despite such inventive attention to detail, there is an underlying feeling that the audience has somehow been duped. Perhaps this was all part of Genet’s idea, where the boundaries between ‘play’ and reality are blurred to the point of utter mystification, but he cheats his audienceby throwing up innumerable questions without ever pointing to where the answers can be found. The real-life mystery of why the Papin sisters killed their employers was never solved and likewise, the motivation behind Claire and Solange’s desire to murder their mistress is never fully explored. Therefore, their anger seems disappointingly hollow and unfounded.Undeniably, this play would have had a greater resonance with a contemporaryaudience, but quite apart from these contextual difficulties, the complex storyline never quite shrugs off its associations with male fantasy, centring on a pair of scissors-sisters locked in a world of domestic ritual and compliance. The Maids was cutting-edge drama in its time but it now stands as a glorious period piece and Alishenas has admirably resurrected this intriguing play with a tight and uplifting production.ARCHIVE: 2nd week MT 2005

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