If you’ve ever had a tyrant boss, you’ve probably fantasised about something horrible happening to them, maybe on accident or maybe on purpose. For Claire and Solange, imagining the death of their domineering Madame and recreating it in detail has become a daily ritual of release and reclamation. This Jean Genet classic is about power and dominance in the luxury and suffocation of a woman’s dressing room.
The action opens during one of the sisters’ murderous recreations. Claire (Alexandra Aldrich) plays their mistress and Solange (Amanda McGregor) plays Claire. It’s tense and melodramatic as they to-and-fro until the climax of overflow. Claire peaks in her hatred of the lower classes and Solange has built to her maximum point of disgust as she pours forth insults upon her imaginary Madame. As Claire admires herself in the mirror, Solange begins to strangle her. This is the final moment of their charade, the ultimate reclamation of power and agency. It’s a ritual they have perfected through repetition and it seems to be the only thing keeping them going in their daily drudge of humiliation and debasement.
Today is a significant day, though, as Madame has been made vulnerable at the arrest of her Monsieur and this may be the sisters’ best chance to make good on their fantasy. They debate their plan and await her return.
Aldrich and McGregor are phenomenal as the central duo of this production. Their movement amongst the shifting dynamics of leader and follower, love and hatred, joy and fear is tight and very well orchestrated. They are playing women pushed so deep into the depths of themselves that nothing seems out of bounds. The way they play with the borders of fiction and reality is enthralling. Their ultimate goal is freedom: freedom from their lives, from their shame, and from the particular kind of humiliation experienced in shared shame.
The heart of this script is negotiations of power and the way being demeaned to the point of dehumanisation, like the maids are by their mistress, can destroy a person’s sense of themselves. Director Carissa Licciardello also seeks to add another layer of gender violence and misogyny by casting Madame (Skylar Ellis) as a man. In this way, Madame maintains the upper-hand in all power imbalances: class, economic, gender, etc. The intention is to create a crushingly impossible situation for the maids which emphasises even further their humiliation. However, an insurmountable evil is unrealistic and, ultimately, uninteresting. Madame is able to straddle the gender binary of violence and freely swaps between feminine-coded manipulative social violence and more masculine-coded physical violence by dropping her voice and using physical intimidation. Misogyny and violence against women, the dehumanisation and oppression of women is devastating enough without trying to exaggerate it.
Additionally, directing Ellis to ape a woman does nothing to further the examination this production aims for. Watching a man be a caricature of a women is nothing new; drag queens have been doing it for decades, mimicry is one of the first tactics employed by men who want to belittle, demean, and silence women. If the interest lies in a woman mocking a man mocking a woman and that is meant to represent internalised misogyny, it’s a limited, circular take that depends on the presentation of an achingly familiar misogyny that goes unchallenged here. There is too little distance between Claire mimicking Madame and Ellis mimicking a woman for this trick to hit bone.
From their social position, the sisters’ solution appears outside of themselves, in play-acting as other people in order to gain control over their lives. The sisters construct new narratives for themselves and each other in more and more manic states until the ultimate escape presents itself. The tension this play-acting creates in reality is palpable as Aldrich and McGregor fight to provoke and then convince each other and themselves. Their emotional control is superb and fills the small dressing room with their shared history.
The design of that small dressing room is deceptively simple with a high attention to detail. Designer Nick Fry weaves a royal colour palette of blue and gold throughout the customary items of domestic spaces. Lighting design by Martin Kinnane moves the space from a French dressing room to an execution and beyond. Again, deceptively simple in its atmospheric touch.
This is a story about humanity’s boundaries and what people are capable of when they’re pressed. Shame is powerful and the repercussions when it cracks are a wonderful material for dramatic exploration.
The Maids is running at Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre from August 25th – September 15th.