Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Time out of mind | 17 March 2016

Plus: Mel Giedroyc will hopefully get better offers than this American adoption melodrama at Southwark Playhouse

The Maids is a fascinating document. Written in 1947, Jean Genet’s drama portrays a pair of serving girls who enact sexually loaded fantasies while dressed in the clothes of their employer, Madame, whose murder they are secretly plotting. This macabre sketch still resonates because it analyses and presages the key social transition of the 20th century, namely the overthrow of privilege by the underclass. And it boasts extra layers of erotic chic because the sexually inquisitive maids are sisters and because Genet suggested that the girls might be played by men in drag. This delicate, subtle work is as firmly rooted in its historical era as another classic political allegory, Animal Farm, to which it bears some similarities.

Jamie Lloyd has based his update on two bold decisions. The 20th century didn’t happen. And Genet will function perfectly well if we pretend he’s a modern scribbler. The difficulty is that nobody has servants any more except billionaires and celebrities so Lloyd flies the script out to California (or somewhere like that) and parachutes the maids into the opulent mansion of a squawking super-rich parasite. Actually, it’s not that opulent as there’s no furniture. The action is played on a rostrum with multicoloured floor tiles overhung by a wooden canopy on stilts, which resembles a box in a museum. Denuding the stage of domestic detail removes any air of transgression or excitement as the girls cavort and pose in Madame’s borrowed silks. Nor is there any sense of anxiety that Madame might appear at any moment and discover them at their sport.

Blaring lights and thumping music create a vapid MTV atmosphere, which further distances us from the point and substance of Genet’s original. And yet some vestigial traces remain. The sisters claim to be devout Catholics who nightly pray on bended knee.

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