To the Old Ship Hotel for the Brighton Festival’s production of The Maids. Written in 1947 by iconoclast French playwright and author Jean Genet, a new translation of the play has been produced by director Neil Bartlett. The programme loftily states that this is a ‘world premier’; I am slightly fed up with every new translation of a classic being treated like a new work, seemingly springing forth from the loins of its oh so creative director. But that aside, Bartlett was an imaginative and successful artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith until recently, and having left that institution and a red velvet auditorium behind, he has decided to stage this production in the polar opposite, an industrial looking space off the hotel’s car park and up some grotty back stairs. The traverse stage is simply the red and white confetti strewn concrete floor, and the set a bed and side table, with several warped chandeliers on the floor, acting as atmospheric lighting. We are all enveloped by the huge room, racks full of cloths trailing back from the stage, the audience up close to the actors, yet also within the cavernous space.
The Maids of the title are sisters Solange and Claire. They play out a fantasy of killing their mistress, Madame, nightly when she is out. Genet wrote the play inspired by the real life case of sisters who killed their employer, only in his mind events are warped way beyond that course of action. The bizarre, and by now ritual, acting out of pleasantries followed by hideous insults and eventual murder, is horribly spellbinding, the hatred for their mistress clear, but their desire for her love also evident from their ordinary conversation. Their ritual is also personal, one sister using the guise of acting to put the other down, identities also become confused in such a heated and theatrical world.
All the actors were absolutely brilliant the night I attended, each one perfectly performing the roles they had been given. Kathryn Hunter as Claire, the sister who plays out Madame in their fantasy, sadistically insulting her sister and degrading the servant classes, disgusted by the filthy world she feels part of. Hayley Carmichael as Solange, who has a split personality, loving her humiliation but wanting to dominate her sister (and Madame) too. Their horrible needy relationship with each other is dominated by Madame (who appears relatively briefly), played by Geraldine Alexander, frightfully upper class and totally selfish, blithe to any bitter resentment from her maids, or even the thought that they might exist beyond their interactions with her.
Astonishingly the three parts of this play are shared by the actors, each one playing a different part on a different night (and only finding out on the day which). For the audience this is a thrill; ‘who will we get tonight’ will be the question before the play, and who suits which role best the vexed question for afterwards. But for the actors, rehearsing 6 different versions of a play, let alone remembering 3 sets of lines, must be daunting, especially for such a short run (14 performances), but they do it brilliantly, I would never have guessed that they had not been specifically cast and rehearsed in those roles. The Maids is a great play about identity, given a great production by Bartlett and made brilliant by the actors.