The Maids (Mad Women on the Shore)
Woolloongabba Art Gallery
May 9 – 13
“The Maids” is a show of the sort that everyone should see at least once, but maybe only just once. The 1947 French play about domestic servitude is hard work at times, but offers some intermittent reward with some funny scenes.
It beings with the incessant screeching of one of the titular characters, Claire (Amy Hauser) as she stomps about in what are clearly someone else’s too-big heels. By contrast, her sister Solange is understated in her acceptance of the scolding, with Re’anne Duffy conveying as much with just one look of nuanced facial expression than any amount of dialogue. But all is not as it at first seems and as Solange begins to shape into rebellion from faithful servitude, it becomes apparent that the interaction is just part of a ritual role-play in which Claire adopts the role of the their wealthy young mistress, known only as Madame, while Solange pretends to be Claire.
On this occasion, the well-rehearsed ritual is disrupted by news that Madame’s criminal lover, whom Claire has secretly reported to the police, has been released on bail. So Claire and Solange have finally decided to exact their ambition to kill the Mistress whom they simultaneously (and obsessively) both love and hate. Their resulting, sometimes-ambiguous, bickering power-play is repetitious and verbose, making for a lengthy precursor to when Madame proper (Caitlin Hill) makes an entrance. And what an entrance it is! Swathed in a black and white David Jones print ensemble, she appears with almost Cruella de Vil cartoonishness, which she relishes in her every movement and glance down her nose at servants she loves like she does her furniture. As Hill turns comments into insults with passive-aggressive insincerity and insensitivity, she is magnetically melodramatic, which not only makes her scenes an absolute highlight, but causes others to drag by comparison.
As one of the great works of the Theatre of the Absurd, “The Maids” is an energetic and physical show. Yet despite only ever having a maximum of three actors onstage, it’s an intimate play that is well suited to the Woolloongabba Art Gallery space, which allows audience members from all sides to voyeuristically observe as dialogue volleys back and forth between characters sometimes at other ends of the room. Indeed, it makes excellence use of the space to create the window, wardrobe and even costumes to which the dialogue refers. And the paintings along the gallery walls work well to take the place of the room clutterings and flowers mentioned in the text.
Against this intimate space, the actors give big performances. Duffy’s climatic unleash of oppression is of martyrdom-like magnitude and while Hauser is most dominant in her mockery her Mistress’ narcissistic distain, she is at her best when of smaller presence, literally shaking in her shoes in response to Madame’s intimidating presence.
As a work of heightened reality and theatricality, “The Maids” is certainly not for everyone. Though it may have been 70 years since it first caused a scandal, there is still a wicked lure to its sadomasochistic games, especially considering its horrific inspiration in the real-life 1933 gruesome murders of two French provincial bourgeoisies by their maids. And for those who like to see theatre pushing the boundaries and are ‘willing to play the game’, it is sure to be a rewarding investment of time to ensure acquaintance with the modern classic.