Independent theatre company Hedgepig Theatre will be staging Jean Genet’s The Maids (Le Bonnes) next month at the Fleeting Arms. Ahead of their tour around Yorkshire, Unknown visited them in rehearsal to get an insight into their methods and the hopes they have for the finalised product.
Hedgepig aims to produce original and thought-provoking theatre, capable of fully engaging their audience and creating spaces that are often both charming and challenging; their decision to stage The Maids, a play that explores the power of imagination and storytelling, fits perfectly within this vision. It observes two housemaids, Solange and Claire, who construct elaborate sadomasochistic rituals together, enacting the role of “Madame” whilst she is away. At the centre of such role-play lies their dark intention: murder. This plot is loosely based on the notorious Papin sisters who brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter in Le Mans in 1933, sparking controversy about class divide, sororal dominance and insanity.
It seems a popular gimmick at the moment to ‘update’ plays to suit the modern era rather than drawing out the elements that remain relevant
I arrived at the rehearsal to find three women being sucked into corseted silk dresses. Gemma Sharp (Solange), Anna Rose James (Claire) and Victoria Delaney (Madame) were being fitted into their costumes by their designer Julia Smith. While I remarked on the apparent anachronism of the costumes, director Andy Curry replied that Hedgepig tries not to situate its productions in distinct historical eras, especially when their content is universal and continues to be relevant today. It seems a popular gimmick at the moment to “update” plays to suit the modern era rather than drawing out the elements that remain relevant. Smith urges the latter and her costume design appears capable of rising to this challenge. She described the dresses as “deliberate exaggerations of what the maids perceive Madame to wear,” their corsets and lavish red and white silks emphasising class divide, but also bubble hems and uneven netting signifying their corruption of Madame’s image.
This concept of the maids corrupting their environment is something that Hedgepig wants to carry throughout the production. Andy Curry described various aspects of the set as deliberately tarnished; in one scene Madame comments on the “beautiful flowers” surrounding her but in this production these floral decorations are dead and ominous. Gemma Sharp cited Madame’s line, which suggests the maids’ cleaning “is a mixture of luxury and filth,” as inspiration for this scene. Curry also explained the convoluted nature of the production’s soundtrack: an “indescribably eerie, other-worldly noise” created by the composer Alexander King from sound bites of the cast cut up with synthesisers. Lighting designer Kelli Zezulka’s removal of stage lighting with only four lights controlled by those onstage is a choice that also creates a darker, more sinister atmosphere for the audience.
Curry saw it as ‘class anger’ stemming largely from Genet’s clear voice, a view that was shared by many French intellectuals and thinkers back in the 1930s
Various words were dotted around: feminism, domination, dependency, anger, corruption. I asked the cast what for them was the key message or tone of The Maids. Curry saw it as “class anger” stemming largely from Genet’s clear voice, a view that was shared by many French intellectuals and thinkers back in the 1930s, including Genet. Of course, Genet was a fierce critic of the bourgeoisie and their treatment of the lower classes, himself spending the best part of the 1930s in and out of Paris prisons for theft, begging and prostitution as a result of poverty. The case of the Papin sisters must have been of interest to Genet as it incited fear in the upper classes of what might be going on in their own houses, Curry claiming the case “shined a light on those who had previously never been looked at before.” The “two worlds” domestic divide between servants and masters is certainly clear in this production, with distinct transitions from the maids’ world of vengeful imagined violence to the “reality” of housekeeping signified with the ringing of Madame’s bell.
A dark but intriguing play falls in the hands of an exciting and capable company, if you crave an evening of sadomasochism, sibling rivalry and class war, look no further than Hedgepig’s dynamic and creative performance of Genet’s The Maids.