The Maids

The Maids Famous Last WordsFamous Last Words. Goodwood Theatre & Studios. 6 Apr 2024


In the intimate Studio performance space at the Goodwood Theatre, Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s ‘transalation’ of Jean Genet’s psychosexual drama The Maids forces the audience to be voyeuristic and grips them by the throat for a continuous 90 minutes without pause. The expletive laden language at first elicits embarrassed responses, but this soon gives way to submission and then to arrogant judgement: whether we like it or not, the audience occupies the privileged position of crime scene observer, prosecutor, moralist, jury, and judge. Genet’s (updated) text, and director James Watson’s actual production design forces all this on the audience, and it is uncomfortable, provocative, and disturbing. More on that later.


The storyline of the The Maids has its basis in historical reality and concerns two domestic servants – sisters Claire and Solange, played by Emelia Williams and Virginia Blackwell – who plot against Madame (Kate Owen), their privileged employer. Their intention is to eliminate Madame and steal her assets. Like the witches in Macbeth, they routinely whip themselves into a jealous and avaricious frenzy by role-playing their fantasies whenever Madame is away from the house. They take turns in play acting: one becomes Madame, and dresses in her finery, while the other plays her sister. The blurring of personalities is palpable, and Genet’s dramatisation of the play acting is emotionally heightened, and extreme. The text provides fertile ground for Williams and Blackwell, who, in the main, tame and work the lurid text to their advantage. Blackwell is especially effective in presenting a personality on the brink of self-destruction, and Williams’ final scene is especially evocative as she employs levels of varying expression that stand in stark contrast to the often ‘shouty’ monologues at the start.


For much of the play, Madame is silently on stage serving as as constant pointer to what Claire and Solange aspire. Owen does it so well. Her presence is almost chilling. When Madame does finally ‘enter the scene’ and engages with her maids, it is immediately clear why Claire and Solange both despise and admire their employer. The success of this characterisation can be sheeted home to both Owen’s skill as an actor and Watson’s clear vision for what he wants.


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This is not easy theatre, but one cannot help feel that Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s translation has in part clouded some of the deeper issues evident in Genet’s original, such as the psychology of oppression: why the oppressed behave (and limit their behaviour) as they do in response to the actions and motivations of the oppressor.


The Studio at Goodwood is not an easy space to work, but Watson and his team turn limitations into advantages. The large wall of upstage mirrors is deliberately used as the dominant feature of the setting, and becomes a metaphor for Claire, Solange, and Madame continually and subconsciously looking inward at themselves while all the time being obsessed with outward appearances. The mirrors also give the audience a unique perspective: they force us to question the extent to which we might be reflected in the dramatis personae; they allow us to see everything that is happening all at the same time, but from different perspectives; they force us to be conscious that we are not only observing but also judging. Stage furnishings are minimal, but entirely sufficient: costume racks on which hang Madame’s couture; black lacquered cabinets and stands with rococo gold decorations; an elegant chaise. It all represents the world from which Claire and Solange are excluded, and to which they believe they cannot truly aspire. They are locked out, which is a sad parallel to the contemporary economic difficulties faced by many.


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Rhys Stewart’s lighting is almost unstructured, and the entire auditorium is bathed in a stark white wash that lays bare everything. The audience cannot hide from the cast, and vice versa. There is no attempt at a ‘fourth wall’. Indeed, Solange directly engages members of the audience in provocative and menacing ways. It’s uncomfortable. At times one wished for the lights to fade down on the audience, so that we could be more secretive as voyeurs, and so that Claire, Solange, and Madame could not easily see us looking down our noses at them in our cosy and privileged judgement. But Watson had different ideas.


James Watson and Famous Last Words have daringly tackled a difficult play, and a testing adaptation of it. Again, they haven’t resiled from the hard stuff.


Kym ClaytonThe Maids Famous Last Words


When: 6 to 13 Apr

Where: Goodwood Theatre & Studios