Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Maids - Tempest Theatre (11 November 2015)

Who at one time or another hasn’t thought ill of their employer? Who hasn’t fantasised about putting them in their place… or worse? Of course, for the vast majority of us, those thoughts remain a fantasy. We rail about real or perceived unfairness in the workplace and the ‘draconian’ conditions placed upon us but often do so in silence.

French dramatist Jean Genet, however, used the real life murder of an employer by two French sisters in 1933 as the dropping off point for this play. And so sisters Claire (Aisling McGrogan) and Solange (Kylie Maree) came in to being, maids in servitude to an unnamed Madame (Maree Grayden). What follows is an exploration of the power dynamics between classes and, as importantly, the sisters themselves with a touch of sadomasochistic role play and the hint of a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. It’s perhaps an overly clever piece of writing with plenty of reversals and an ambiguous ending as one of the key tenets is the blurring of fantasy and reality.

That makes it a tricky proposition both from a performance point of view and for an audience unfamiliar with the piece as the ground shifts constantly. In the opening scene for example the power dynamics simply didn’t ring true and I was quite perplexed until a reversal explained why that was the case. The sequence does set up the premise but left me a little flatfooted to begin with.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing to unsettle or intrigue an audience but there was a crucial element I never quite got my head around – tone. As a screenwriter I am always conscious of tone (a vital element of any screenplay) and here I wasn’t sure what sort of story I was watching. Was it a comedy, a drama, or a tragedy? That proved to be elusive as there were aspects of all of three but not a consistent approach throughout. Furthermore, the injection of the ‘murder mystery’ regarding Madame’s lover ultimately felt like a red herring.

I suspect the biggest reason for this inconsistency was a quite fascinating clash of acting styles. Kylie Maree was very grounded and natural as Solange, building towards an end monologue that showed how crazy and delusional the character (possibly) was. McGrogan, however, took a more melodramatic approach to Claire with a wide-eyed intensity that noticeably jarred – where she was all hand gestures and physical movement, Maree was still and measured. 

Maree Grayden’s Madame who makes a brief appearance in the middle of the play also felt more caricature than character. Those different styles muddled the tone as moments came across as comedic that perhaps should have been more understated. A sequence involving a tea cup was leached of any tension due to an almost sitcom style execution. Was I meant to laugh or was I meant to feel unease?

There’s no doubt that in the power hierarchy established by the play Claire is subservient to her sister and therefore can come across as whiny and pouty. However, there wasn’t a clear enough delineation between the ‘real Claire’ to when the character was merely role playing. There was a ‘sameness’ to the performance that undercut its effectiveness.

Kylie Maree did modulate her approach to Solange and there is a clear arc here as the more dominant figure emerges and finally flourishes into quite a disturbing profile of someone capable of murder. Whether she does or not is an entirely different matter that was being debated in the lobby after the show. Maree’s final monologue is all the more compelling because it is the continuation of a slow build up as the character is fully revealed. There is a fascinating scene between the sisters just prior to this as their role play threatens to spiral out of control as Solange exerts her dominance.  
The set was very well appointed and lit in the intimate studio space at the Subiaco Arts Centre – flowers and mirrors are key elements as are the gowns Madame prefers and the maids play with. Director Susie Conte maximises the space with the action up close and personal with no break during the hour plus production. The highlight is the closing monologue that Kylie Maree delivers in style before an open ended conclusion invites the audience to ponder the ramifications of what they have witnessed.

Written by Jean Genet, Directed by Susie Conte, The Maids stars Kylie Maree, Aisling McGrogan, and Maree Grayden. The final show is on tonight, 14 November, 7.30pm at the Subiaco Arts Centre.

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