'The Maids': Theater Review

Laura Carmichael, Uzo Aduba and Zawe Ashton in The Maids - H 2016
Courtesy of Marc Brenner
Serving up a delicious hot mess.

Uzo Aduba ('Orange Is the New Black') and Zawe Ashton throw shade at one another, playing the help of mistress Laura Carmichael ('Downton Abbey') in Jean Genet's drama.

There's something eerily funereal about the set in director Jamie Lloyd's new production of Jean Genet's The Maids at Trafalgar Studios in London, evoking nasty fairy tales with unhappy endings. A black, sparse gazebo strewn with paper petals, it looks like a glass casket minus the glass, just waiting for some toxic Snow White to bite the apple, or, in this case, drink the poisoned tea proffered at the end.

The stripped-down staging works very well for this fetid study of class hatred and corrosive obsession, centered around two domestic servants — played with compelling if shrill hysteria by Zawe Ashton and Uzo Aduba — who ritually play-act out the murder of their mistress every night.

Working with the C-word-rich translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton (commissioned for the Sydney Theatre Company production that starred Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert and transferred to New York in 2014), Lloyd's version eschews the frock-laden clothes rails and lush white sofa of Andrews’ staging. Instead, the few props required are stuffed unceremoniously in trapdoor hidey-holes, hauled out when necessary. For a play so much about wealth disparity, which namechecks top designers (McQueen and Lanvin, for example) and fetishizes objects, there's remarkably little stuff on display. It's as if everything is going on in the maids' attic chamber, that "revolting cat box of a room," as one of them calls it.

Lloyd's raw, dirty rendition suits the intimacy of the Studios' in-the-round setting. It evokes the seedy cabarets a few streets away, especially the drag shows that were once a specialty at the now temporarily closed Soho watering hole Madame Jojo's and the orgiastic club nights of the 1990s.

Summoning the spirit of all-male Maids in productions past, the tall, angular Ashton (from Carol Morley’s excellent docudrama Dreams of a Life) serves up psychotic drag-queen unrealness with style in the role of Claire. Although her quavering delivery is a touch repetitive over the long haul, it’s an impressively physical turn as she struts and flutters nervously back and forth through the petals, the makeup slathered Kardashian-thick over her face.

Keeping her powder dry for the heavy firepower displays that crop up throughout, Solange (Aduba, a two-time Emmy winner for her role as Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" in Orange Is the New Black) is mostly reactive in the first half — although she lets loose plenty of leering sneers and ominous flicks of her rubber gloves. When it's time to let rip, she channels Southern Baptist oratory style, preaching damnation and vengeance as she acts out with Claire the vengeful annihilation of their mistress (Laura Carmichael, who has the posh bitch thing down pat after all those years as Lady Edith on Downton Abbey).

Although Aduba's Solange hits the adjectives hard when she mentions her mistress' "ivory breasts" and "golden thighs," Lloyd and the cast don't sweat the text too hard to make it more about race, beyond the fact that two actors of color are playing the domestics. Just having all three speak with American accents is enough to evoke the ongoing Stateside conversation about identity and class, so acute this week as the production opens in London while the Academy Awards are presented in Los Angeles.

Certainly, while Carmichael's kicky little silver mini suit evokes one of Chanel's more outre and sparkly creations, there's very little that feels particularly French about this production. It's about as Parisian as Paris Is Burning, and indeed Jennie Livingston's 1991 AIDS-era documentary is very much a key referent here, with Solange and Claire striking poses to disco beats that throb loudly from time to time.

All that voguing, screeching and confetti throwing — not to mention the epilepsy-inducing sudden light changes and plunges into black — makes for an entertaining distraction from the fact that the play is sort of a hot mess, and always has been since it was first performed in 1947. But it's a fascinating hot mess, campy as a Joan Crawford movie and almost as menacing, which is perhaps why it survives in the repertoire.

Venue: Trafalgar Studios, London
Cast: Uzo Aduba, Zawe Ashton, Laura Carmichael
Playwright: Jean Genet
Translation: Benedict Andrews, Andrew Upton

Director: Jamie Lloyd
Set & costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Jon Clark

Music & sound designer: Ben and Max Ringham
Movement: Polly Bennett
Fight director: Kate Waters
Dialect coach: Penny Dyer
A Jamie Lloyd Company production, presented by Howard Panter and Adam Speers for Ambassador Theatre Group