Jean Genet’s 1947 psychological thriller arrives in the West End with an impressive cast that will be familiar to TV viewers, which should help bring this powerful work to a new audience: Zawe Ashton of Channel 4’s Fresh Meat, Uzo Aduba from the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black and Laura Carmichael — otherwise known as Lady Edith in Downton Abbey.
The story is based on the notorious case of the Papin sisters who murdered their employer in France in 1933. It centres on sibling housemaids Solange and Claire (played by Aduba and Ashton respectively), who devise elaborate role-play games that involve the killing of their mistress. Their acting-up grows more intense, eventually moving into the realm of sadomasochism and revealing details about the pair’s relationship beyond the joint loathing of their employer (Carmichael).
However, the question hangs tantalisingly in the air: will fantasy satisfy their urges or will they go beyond acting out elaborate games and commit murder? The opportunity has presented itself before, but this time they go a step further and contrive to have a member of the household arrested so their mistress is alone. So are fantasy and reality about to merge?
Director Jamie Lloyd’s production is a stylish and highly stylised take on the work, with heightened performances that are almost surreal at times — a feeling enhanced by Soutra Gilmour’s boxed-in set design and the discomforting ambient sound.
Zawe Ashton and Uzo Aduba
Genet’s increasingly long speeches and often brutal language are delivered in a savage and confrontational way that leaves you feeling well and truly battered. But the performances cannot be faulted. Aduba and Ashton are really quite exceptional as power shifts back and forth between them, while Laura Carmichael is a striking presence despite not making an appearance for nearly an hour.
It could be accused of having too much flash over substance at times, but this production of The Maids is never less than compelling.
The Maids is at Trafalgar Studios until 21st May