‘The Maids’ Review
A thrilling, deeply uncomfortable, and striking production
A single beam of piercing light reflected in the mirror. Two figures, backs to the audience, completely motionless. A bedroom in turmoil. This is what the audience encounters as they step into the New Cellars: a macabre silence that is impossible to ignore.
The faces of the two maids, Claire (Jonathan Iceton) and Solange (Lucas Marsden-Smedley) can be just about made out in the glare of light flooding them from behind. Immediately a power dynamic is established, a triangulation between the audience, the seated figure, and the one standing behind her. This use of the mirror is incredibly poignant throughout: as an audience we are always conscious of our uncomfortable voyeurism as we watch the sisters enact their darkest fantasies.
Myers’ choice of this French absurdist play as part of the Queer Season is a challenging and bold choice staged with poise. Sisters Solange and Claire engage in a volatile and sexualised game of sadomasochistic roleplay, perpetually engaged in a combat for domination and control. They concoct a series of scenarios involving the murder of their mistress, constantly teetering on the edge of truly carrying out these fantasies as the boundaries between roleplay and reality begin to blur.
Iceton and Marsden-Smedley navigate the delicate balance between familial tenderness, competition, seduction, fear and suppressed self-hatred with astonishing skill. The sisters revile one another, "I’m tired of having my reflection thrown back at me", and "you’re my bad smell". They master this mirroring, this distortion of identity and intention as their ideas, fears and accusations ricochet off one another in this world of incestuous fantasy.
Both actors seamlessly adopt the body language and mannerisms of their female characters. As an audience there is no moment where we are not on the edge of our seats. The chemistry and electricity the two is tangible and catalyse the events of the play to chilling effect. Georgie Newson-Errey’s stridingly assertive ‘Madame’ counterpoints the instability of the other two characters, and her studied ambiguity cleverly forces us to question the nature of perception. We are unsure as to how much of the sisters’ hatred towards her arises from justified feelings of oppression, and how much of it is an expression envy, lust, and internalised self-hatred for their inferiority in the class system.
The cultivated ambiguity is a particular strength of the play: this is a play which faces us with the unspeakable, the unspoken, and the marginalised.
The staging was also commendable. The binary between audience and performer is constantly violated. The perpetual magnetic motion of the two sisters, attracting and repelling throughout, very successfully mediates the dialogue heavy script and retains the tension and apprehension beautifully. Most striking of all is the visual mirroring of staging in the beginning and end scenes, creating a hair-raising symmetry that is nothing short of genius.
This was one of the most powerfully staged plays I have seen in Cambridge, a deeply sinister production that approached its subject matter with refreshing fearlessness and conviction. I would sincerely recommend watching it.