The Maids (Trafalgar Studios)
Jamie Lloyd directs a contemporary adaptation of Jean Genet's classic play
Jamie Lloyd is punching up his modern classic revivals at the Trafalgar Studios with loud music in the foyers, flashy lighting on the stage and smart casting in the rehearsal room.
This approach can freeze into trendy affectation as I fear it did with The Homecoming, but the acting was a problem, too; no such caveat with Jean Genet's 1947 shocker based on a real-life case of two sisters murdering their employer because... they didn't like her?
Genet, arch criminal, poet, sexual fantasist and rebel, was a great dreamer, but his writing, rather than his scenarios, makes his visions hum; Lloyd here uses a recent, rather low-grade Sydney Theatre Company translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton (the maids were played by Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert) and adds a racial, American tension.
So, the enslaved sisters, Solange and Claire, are played by the tremendous Bostonian black actress Uzo Aduba (star of Orange in the New Black on Netflix) and our own sexually smouldering Zawe Ashton whom I first noted as a wittily cast Bianca in a Globe Othello; while their Mistress - who is in fact a high class prostitute - is played, beautifully and hoity-toitily, as a Park Avenue glamour queen, by Laura Carmichael, Lady Edith in Downton Abbey.
There's a large four-poster bed-style design by Soutra Gilmour, similar to Hildegard Bechtler's for Uncle Vanya at the Almeida, except that it doesn't rotate. The murder is planned in a cabaret of role-playing, pretend power games, ritual and domination, Solange (the elder) calling the shots, Claire living the dressing-up dream.
The stage is awash in petals of roses and carnations, but it's a playground, with twee little pop-up flaps for costumes and props, rather than the murkily lit cell of psychodrama we had with Katie Mitchell's Young Vic production in 1999 (using a fine Martin Crimp translation) or, going further back, a crueller and more visceral exchange between Glenda Jackson and Susannah York at the Greenwich Theatre.
Genet wanted the trio to be played by men, and then of course you get transgender sexuality thrown in (Lindsay Kemp once directed Tim Curry as Solange, and the RSC did an all-male version); but while watching the Trafalgar version, you wouldn't swap it. And I love the way we are cast as voyeurs: "Do you think the people out there can see in?" suggests that the mirrors of the chamber are transparent, the invisible walls have ears.
Carmichael enters in a glittery suit, silver fur coat and humbug-striped knee-high stockings. She looks like a posh llama, and she defies the messiness of Claire's frantic "Madame" turn or the haphazard nature of Solange's assumption of a big red dress in puffball silken sleeves. By then, the die is cast, the black power of the damned asserted, and the frenzy subsided: nothing for it, but a cup of camomile tea in the Mistress's very best china set.
The Maids runs at Trafalgar Studios until 21 May.