Jean Genet’s The Maids (Les Bonnes)

For the final venue of their tour, Hedgepig Theatre have brought Jean Genet’s dark and surreal play, The Maids, to The Fleeting Arms, York. In Genet’s mid twentieth-century exploration of class division in France, sisters Claire (Anna Rose James) and Solange (Gemma Sharp) obsessively plot the murder of their employer, known only as Madame (Victoria Delaney). The neurotic precision with which the sisters practise – and repeatedly fail to execute – the murder has devastating effects on their relationship. The intimate venue suited a play in which everything felt too close for comfort; within a tightly packed and intrusive set, the cast of three navigated action in which emotions were dangerously volatile.

Despite the delay in showing true distinctions between characters and their fractious relationships, the pair embodied an engagingly eerily physical performance throughout

“Filth cannot love filth,” Solange spits to Claire. This was just one of the detailed physical characteristics which showed the sisters in an animalistic light and occurred before the audience had even taken their seats. As we approached, the sisters scrapped, kicked and each sniffed each other in an unsettling physical display, which foregrounded the equally disturbing action that awaited us. Hedgepig Theatre were evidently keen to tap into this meticulous style of motion, with confidently sustained precision from James and Sharp. The pair fearlessly married physical interaction with the play’s expressive language to create an effect which was at times charming but often felt breathlessly sinister. These sadistic, sexualised rituals were an artful highlight of the production.

If these were exhausting roles physically, the pair carrying the bulk of the play’s intense dialogue faced an equally taxing task. The pace of their scenes together was relentless and the tone of their interaction switched from vitriolic to affectionate in a heartbeat. The production did fall prey, however, to the difficulties of this spontaneous and shifting atmosphere. Occasionally the mock-saccharine delivery when imitating Madame would give the dialogue a monotonous, repetitive tone. Similarly, the shades of desperate mania enacted by James and Sharpe came close at times to those lost-girl-horror-film stereotypes. Nevertheless, despite the delay in showing true distinctions between characters and their fractious relationships, the pair embodied an engagingly eerily physical performance throughout.

Photography by Andy Curry
Photography by Andy Curry

Vases of withered flowers and tattered costume complimented each other to create a distressed and decaying atmosphere

The discomforting atmosphere was supported by original music from Alexander King, with synthetic drones and fragments of speech intruding with an uncanny, disturbingly human presence. Though effective, the use of this music in the opening scene was heavy-handed and perhaps too extensive, with such a constant accompaniment diminishing the eerie effect slightly. The staging was, in line with the play’s intense and urgent tones, suitably enclosed and claustrophobic. Vases of withered flowers and tattered costume complimented each other to create a distressed and decaying atmosphere. The lighting was manipulated by the characters onstage and juxtaposed warm and soft lighting, from lamps and a lantern, with a cold, naked bulb. This fluid setting worked perhaps most artfully in Solange’s sporadic final scene. As Sharp provocatively engaged the audience throughout her manic monologue, she was able to direct the lighting through her character’s own sporadic imagination. Imitating an interrogation by holding a lamp upside down against her own face, this highlighted Solange’s conflicted multiplicity in order to enact the play’s tricky denouement. She concludes the play as an insane one-man show with the fate of all the characters left unanswered and the maids’ twisted mission incomplete.

Hedgepig Theatre have boasted in this production their capacity to perform poetic, complex and deeply troubling content through refined physical performances and with a minimal, artful production. Though the absurdist nuances of characters and the open ended plotline seemed tasking for the performers, there was plenty in this brave production that creatively illuminated Genet’s unnerving play.

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