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Review: The Maids at Goodwood Theatre and Studios

Review by Lisa Lanzi


Set in the intimate surrounds of the black box Studio space, the audience are immersed, like it or not, in the ferocious action of this production of Jean Genet’s The Maids.  Director James Watson, founder of Famous Last Words theatre company, has taken on the challenge of Genet’s 1947 play to begin their second year as resident company at Goodwood Theatre and Studios.


Watson has chosen to use the contemporized 2011 adaptation of The Maids by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton which had its Australian premiere at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2013.  While this version retains the tensions and poetic richness of the original, the language is peppered liberally with the ‘c’ and ‘f’ words siting it in a more contemporary era.  Pairing the profanity with the vision of traditionally clad maidservants and mention of extant fashion designers (like Alexander McQueen) this world might exist anywhere within the last few decades; it is all too easy to overlook the fact that ‘maids’ are still a feature of obscenely wealthy households across the globe.  Watson’s production also preserves themes that point to the fundamental inequity of wealth versus poverty, the blurring of the imaginary and the real, the private ‘self’ contrasted with the public persona.


Kate Owen performs the role of ‘Mistress’ with a regal bearing, a hint of capricious cruelty, and conveys that indefinable essence of ease and power unique to privileged classes in possession of great wealth.  From the start, Owen prowls the sidelines as a silent shadow of looming authority, slowly and deliberately donning jewellery, clothing, shoes, or posing in stillness to gaze upon the action.  ‘There but not there’ until a grand entrance when her extrovert and indulgent personality forces the maids to re-inhabit their diminished, servile positions.  Owens delivers precise physicality and gestures and a controlled vocal delivery that shifts to suit the character’s mercurial temperament.


Claire is performed by Emilia Williams who is also credited in the co-producer role.  Our first vision of this sister is a figure clad in black underwear and negligée as she skillfully channels the caricature of ‘Mistress’ and orders Solange to do her bidding.  In time, as they switch between roleplay and the reality of their relationship, Solange becomes the abuser.  Watching this duologue unfold is not comfortable, layered as it is with psycho-sexual imagery, abusive language and actions.  This repeated role playing ritual is one the sisters indulge in when Mistress is away from the house, exorcising their frustrations by donning her clothes, makeup and mannerisms.  Tensions build as the sisters viscerally unpack the great divide of their unfortunate lives, the frustration resulting in wild thoughts of murdering the woman who taunts them.  Williams is also able to morph from the overbearing Mistress roleplay into the loving, caring, overwrought but devoted sister who would die to protect Solange.


The triad of the orphaned sisters and their Mistress and the way the three drift arbitrarily between a loving, tender connection to a brutal, abusive and controlling relationship hints at elements of Stockholm Syndrome: an emotional response that may develop toward a captor or an abuser mirroring love, sympathy, empathy, or a desire to protect that abuser.  On another level, the intense love the sisters have for one another is a both a reaction to and a buffer between inescapable servitude, only relieved by their frenzied nightly role play where they plumb the depths of hate.  They respond to their ‘captivity’ and a desire to escape by bonding more closely with each other amidst shared revulsion for their situation. 


Virginia Blackwell is a revelation as Solange as she navigates the varied states exhibited by the character throughout the long, singular act.  This character is complex, at first seeming the more submissive sister but eventually, as risks increase, becoming a vengeful fury, firing off lines like “My jet of spit is my spray of diamonds”.  As an actor, Blackwell faces the many challenges with astonishing grace and talent.  On top of mastering the rich text and exploring Solange’s particular physicality this actor is required to break the fourth wall to rage among, and at, audience members.  


With superb diction, presence, and character embodiment each cast member contributes much to this work which in lesser hands might lean disastrously toward farce.  James Watson has directed with thoughtful and considered but challenging choices and has obviously earned the trust of his cast, as only very fine directors do.  One such outstanding artistic choice being the mirrored upstage wall of the space.  On one hand implying vanity and exhibitionism within the boudoir, yet simultaneously mirroring the audience, placing us in a discomforting, voyeuristic position.  Another result of using the mirror is that even the most nuanced moments are reflected every which way the actors turn, freeing them to face any direction yet the audience misses nothing.  The simple set with rug, dressing table, and clothes hanging on racks at each side also places a chaise centre stage.  This means the actors all circle about this central point rendering a continuous progression of threat and antagonism, misery and fear.  When they sit or trample upon the chaise, the action is in razor sharp focus, until the whirl and dance of rage and despair begins again.  The set is understated but understood and it almost seems possible to detect the sickly sweet fragrance of the opulent, flower-filled room.


Another very fine production from Famous Last Words, The Maids is a compelling, yet demanding journey for an audience.  What is both sad and surprising is the relevance still to be found in the seventy seven year old work around the persistent societal and financial imbalances littering contemporary existence.


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