A character in Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers reflects that if he wrote a play for women he’d cast it with adolescent boys: this production of The Maids at Pembroke New Cellars casts the titular characters, sisters Solange and Claire with young men (Lucas Marsden-Smedley and Jonathan Iceton respectively), although Madame is still played by a female actor (Georgie Newson-Errey). Drag and transvestitism recur throughout Genet’s oeuvre, coupled with his sadomasochistic erotics of shame and degradation. In this production of The Maids, the use of cross-gender casting emphasised the play’s preoccupations with sex and cruelty, albeit with some loss of its class dynamics. It did, however, give a fascinating texture to the piece’s layering of ritual and fantasy.
The play opens with Solange and Claire acting out a double fantasy, of murdering their mistress and becoming the mistress themselves. The drama is greatly concerned with the interactions between actor and character, play-acting and action. There seemed to be some directorial indecision about how to perform these fantasies within fantasies: the first was strikingly lit, but the moments where the maids’ fantasies seep into the ‘reality’ of the play suffered from a lack of convincing pacing. What is more, the different layers of acting required to separate fantasy from reality became increasing indistinguishable. The cramped space of the New Cellars was utilised effectively for a mood of sickroom claustrophobia, and director Zachary Myers made particularly good use of the mirrored back wall. I was, however, unconvinced by the tinfoil which wrapped most of the props and was spread over the stage; when there was fast movement it distracted from the actors.
Jonathan Iceton gave a wonderfully nuanced and physically attuned performance as Claire; every shift of mood and tone came across through voice and gesture. Iceton’s physicality was striking in extremes of exhaustion and fervour. Marsden-Smedley acted very differently, more detached and bordering on artificiality (not, in Genet, a bad thing), and the contrasting styles of the two performances made for a juxtaposition of effective uneasiness. Claire and Solange, after all, disagree on how their ostensibly joint fantasies should be realised, and the contrasting direction of the two characters by Myers worked well in this regard. Newson-Errey pulled off Madame’s petulance and self-dramatization well; it isn’t a part which provides an awful lot to work with, and she couldn’t match the febrile energy already onstage, but her entrance in particular nicely demarcated mode and tone within the piece.
Despite performances which were never less than capable and at their best greatly impressive, The Maids couldn’t really sustain its moments of dramatic intensity. Madame describes Claire and Solange’s housekeeping as an extraordinary mixture of ‘luxury and filth’, and this production never quite got at the extremes of either.