The Maids, Trafalgar Studios, review: ‘Stylish and witty’

Uzo Aduba in The Maids

Uzo Aduba in The Maids - Credit: Archant

In 1933, French society was rocked by Christine and Léa Papin’s brutal murder of their employer.

The incident loosely inspired Jean Genet’s 1947 play, which uses that power struggle to starkly challenge identity constructs.

Jamie Lloyd’s suitably unflinching revival benefits from a salty Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton translation, and features an added layer of topical resonance by casting actresses of colour as the downtrodden servants.

But most striking is Genet’s radical form – part foul-mouthed performance poetry, part expressionist fever dream.

There’s no anchor to reality as the women weave their experiences into sensational stories (they’re keen readers of Deadly Pleasures magazine) and crawl into one another’s skins through role-play.

The maids’ revenge ritual, in which one acts as mistress and the other murderer, could be a memory, a plot, a fantasy or a warped love letter, while the vividly subjective characterisation renders the lady of the house monstrous and the sisters horrifyingly debased.

Genet lays bare the psychological devastation of defining one person through another.

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The maids are at the mercy of their mistress’s whims and denied independent lives, imprisoned long before they contemplate committing a crime.

They mirror one another’s self-loathing and cringe under the audience’s gaze – metatheatricality amplified by Soutra Gilmour’s pictured-framed set.

Along with unnatural class divisions, this all-female work interrogates the performative quality of gender, from exaggerated feminine gestures to outré drag queen costuming.

The manic imitation by Zawe Ashton’s maid punctures the artifice of Laura Carmichael’s pouting mistress, and Ashton forms a superb double act with Uzo Aduba as the incestuous sisters whose identities queasily blur.

Aduba is also adept at finding necessary tonal gradations in Lloyd’s high-octane production. A stylish, witty and lurid assault that finds existential truth through radical pretence.

4/5 stars.