The Maids ~ theatre notes

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Maids

The Maids by Jean Genet, directed by John Bolton, lighting by Armando Licul and Govin Ruben. With Suzannah Bayes-Morton, Zoe Ellerton-Ashley and Shelly Lauman. Victorian College of the Arts School of Drama Autumn Season, Grant Street Theatre

I vividly remember my first encounter with the writing of Jean Genet. I was around nineteen and for reasons I forget - perhaps no reason - I picked up his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. I read it in a kind of daze: I found myself hypnotised by the sheer decadent sensuality of the prose, and at the same time completely confused. I did not understand this moral universe at all.

Yet, when I reached its final pages, there occurred one of those perceptual shifts that art can occasionally produce, a kind of click; the mental equivalent, I suppose, of those Victorian optical puzzles where you suddenly realise that what appears at first to be a white vase is also two faces in profile. It was as if, through the experience of reading it, I had insensibly been given a key to the book. I went straight back to page one and read it again. And it's probably fair to say - though I can say this of a number of books, thus demonstrating the vicious effect of reading - that I have never been quite the same since.

My naive bourgeois assumptions had, all the way through the book, been kicked, trampled and spat on; and even so, I had probably understood about fifty per cent of its violations. (In many ways I had a sheltered upbringing). Genet turned all the values I didn't realise I held violently inside out.

It was all very exciting. But it was also much more than that; if it had been merely shocking, it would not have disturbed me so profoundly. What I realised, however foggily, was that Genet is a sternly moral writer.

Much later, I read Jean-Paul Sartre's monumental study, Saint Genet, which explores this basic illumination to great depth. But, however much I admired Sartre's scholarship and perception, I couldn't help feeling dubious about his breathless sanctification of Genet, which itself seemed a little bourgeois, underlaid by a wide-eyed boyish fascination with the romantic beauty of criminal revolt.

I think Genet was neither a saint nor a demon. These extreme identities were masks: behind them stood a complex, anonymous and, perhaps, even detached intellectual (a title he despised). He seems to me to be at once driven by deep anger and love, and yet standing at a profoundly ironic angle to himself. This generates the passion of his artifice, which is deadly serious: Genet's vision is not camp, as is often claimed, but tragic. It may elude and mock the fatal trivialities and sentiment of the intellect, which are the death of love, but it doesn't eschew, as camp does, seriousness itself. That's one of the things that can make Genet, still, an authentically shocking writer.

Georges Bataille's term "hypermorality" - used to describe a moral system which challenges received morality to the extent that it is regarded as either amoral or immoral - is pertinent here. Somehow in Genet's writing, despite the extremity of experience it enacts, one is always aware of the cold witnessing eye. Perhaps this is no more than to say that he was a great writer. Whatever the case, it is true enough to say that all his life, Genet was concerned with the question of power: what it is, what it does to those who lack it, what it does to those who possess it.

It's a theme already clear in The Maids. This play, his first to be produced, was actually his second work for theatre after Deathwatch, a blackly absurd drama set in prison. The Maids was written in 1945, the last year of World War 2, which is not insignificant. It has been said that the dropping of the nuclear bomb was the act which inaugurated the Theatre of the Absurd: the possibility that human beings could completely annihilate themselves suggested a world of such madness that only real madness could be considered a sane response.

The Maids, inspired by a notorious 1933 murder when two maids brutally killed their employers, collapses fantasy and reality. It is a play of heiratic roles, all of them ultimately cruel: the two maids, Solange (Suzannah Bayes-Morton) and Claire (Shelly Lauman), act out their sadistic mistress-servant fantasies and their social roles as servants; Madame (Zoe Ellerton-Ashley) her performances as tyrant, beneficient employer and lover.

All these roles circle each other, as increasingly malevolent reflections; each character switches without warning from total abjection to an equally total tyranny. Between these switches are poignant articulations of love, distorted by the cliches which express and imprison them, a yearning which is at once instransigent and ungraspable, because inexpressible. Literally, within the paradigm of power this play expresses, there is no language for love. Consequently, as becomes evident through the play, all these gestures are ultimately expressions of despair, rhetorics of behaviour which conceal a devastating inner emptiness. Beyond the paradigm of dominator and dominated, there is an unfillable vacuum.

This makes The Maids, to say the least, an extremely challenging play. John Bolton's production makes a very creditable fist of it. It opens with the fantasies of the maid servants performed on an over-the-top stage of velvet drapes and flowers, placed in the middle of an empty space. When the alarm goes off, signalling Madame's imminent arrival, Solange and Claire "tidy up": their makeshift stage is Madame's bed, the velvet drapes her bedspread, and so on. This opens the action out to the "real life" of the stage, which turns out to be as histrionic as their own fantasies.

Genet's famous advice to women playing The Maids (it was originally written for men) was that they must not "put their c***ts on the table". In other words, this is not a play which looks specifically at how women relate, and must not be played as if it is. By virtue of a certain toughness and edginess, this production avoids the traps that Genet warned against.

The Maids really requires an older cast; not because older actors might be more skilled, but because there are some understandings that come, except in very rare instances, only with time. In the absence of the extreme emotional sophistication Genet's writing requires - a lived understanding of the intolerability of what Genet is portraying - the passion of these young actors is a good substitute. They give performances that are at once fearless and controlled, and attain performative fineness without losing an essential, naive sense of emotional rawness.

I admired especially Zoe Ellerton-Ashley as Madame. Her predatory performance evoked both Madame's shockingly violent egocentricity and her fragility, the source of a genuine pathos. And it was great also to see an indigenous actor cast, without comment, in this play.

It is a good and honest production that reveals the despair that drives The Maids, its merciless portrayal of the intolerable poverty of emotional worlds wholly trammelled by capitalistic power. Yet it is a mistake to regard Genet's black vision as nihilistic: his work is far from that. The erotic dynamic in the play is, in a way, its own subterranean counter-argument. And, to quote John Berger, one of the great writers of our time: "The naming of the intolerable is itself the hope".


Anonymous said...

Whilst the general content of and opinions expressed in your recent review of Genet's 'The Maids'at the Victorian College of the Arts are well informed and constructed, you make special reference to an Aboriginal actor being cast as Solange. Your assumption concerning her racial background was incorrect, and a mistake that could have been easily rectified, had you perhaps taken the trouble to read the actor profiles readily available in the foyer of VCA. I would suggest this would be a fairly common activity prior to viewing any theatre performance with the intention of then writing a review.

Surely it would be preferable for the actor concerned to read a negative or constructive review of her performance, or indeed no reference at all, rather than a passing comment on her appearance as some sort of representative of Aboriginal culture.

Alison Croggon said...

My humble apologies for my mistaken assumption. As it happened, although I looked, I could find no information on the production while I was there, and had to rely on information sent me later. Though I do make a brief general comment on her performance in a catch-all comment on the cast ("They give performances that are at once fearless and controlled, and attain performative fineness without losing an essential, naive sense of emotional rawness") - so do not, as you imply, erase her work completely.

All the best


Thomas Dillon said...

I just saw The Maids in Kentish Town, London, a fine production in which Kelly Costello tore up the scenery as Solange - watch out for her. Your review from 2005 is, if I may say so, extremely perceptive and subtle.

Allow me to express sympathy for the foolish politically correct criticism that Anonymous courageously posted.