By Demi Wester
A lot of big names in one sentence: ‘The Maids’ written by Jean Genet, directed by Katie Mitchell and performed by Toneelgroep Amsterdam. It promised a lot, and it was indeed an interesting performance. The plot sounds quite out-dated; a play centred on the relationship between two maids and their mistress. But, Mitchell managed to modernize the play in an interesting way. On the 15th of December I travelled to Amsterdam to see ‘The Maids’, I really enjoyed the evening and I think it was definitely worth the 4-hour train ride.
Background of the play
‘The Maids’ is a play that was written by Jean Genet. A little knowledge about his life makes it easier to understand the basic theme of ‘The Maids’. Genet was born to a twenty-year-old prostitute, who gave him away within a year. He became an orphan and at a later age was falsely accused of stealing. After that he really got into criminality. This, his homosexuality and him working as a prostitute made that Genet belonged to various oppressed groups in society. This theme of oppression and power relationships lies at the basis of the play ‘The Maids’.
The play ‘The Maids’ was first performed in 1947. It is said that, while writing the play, Genet was inspired by the sensational news around the two sisters Papin. Cristine Papin and Lea Papin worked in France as maids and brutally murdered their employer’s wife and daughter.
The play is about the relationship between two sisters, Claire and Solange, and their mistress called Madame. The two maids have a habit of dressing up. One dresses up as Madame, the other as a maid and then they act out a scene in which they kill Madame; an action of freeing themselves from their oppressive mistress. While this habit begins quite innocent, throughout the piece it becomes more serious and urgent. Fantasy and reality become more and more intertwined, which leads the play to its dramatic ending.
If you are interested to read the play yourself, you can find it here: http://web.mit.edu/jscheib/Public/phf/themaids.pdf
One of the firsts things I noticed was that Mitchell really modernized the piece. The décor was a highly modern, almost designer like bedroom of a city apartment. But besides the setting, the situation was also modernized. The two maids were staged as polish immigrants, which makes us rethink the situation of the many Polish working-immigrants that almost everyone in the Netherlands has encountered. Also, Madame was staged as a transvestite. This gave the relationship between the maids and Madame a new dimension. These two choices suit Mitchell’s usual way of staging very well, since she often approaches texts from an engaged point of view. Through these directional choices it seems like she wants to stimulate us to think about the fluidity of gender and most of all about the social oppression that is still present in our society. I think these choices made the piece really interesting to watch.
The acting of Marieke Heebink and Chris Nietvelt was also really impressive. They managed to create a constant tension between their two characters throughout the whole play. You keep on wondering how far these characters will go in real life as well as in their imagination. This tension made that I was really eager to keep on watching.
What is also interesting is that the actresses controlled all the lighting and sound of the piece themselves. The technician only stepped in if one of them forgot to turn on or turn off a light or music track. This regulating of the lights and music was part of the many actions that the actresses went through in the performance. Especially while they dressed up like Madame it was like watching a kind of choreography, the scene then almost became a dance of actions. I personally really liked these parts of the performance.
This great amount of actions suited the tempo of the performance very well. The performance moved quite fast, which also kept it interesting. Quite a lot of text had been scrapped, but I feel like the body of the text definitely remained.
Another interesting feature of the play was that while most of the performance was spoken in Dutch, the maids also spoke partially polish to each other. The parts in which the maids spoke polish to each other, were subtitled in Dutch. And the parts in which the maids spoke Dutch to each other, were subtitled in Polish.
All with all, I would recommend you to go and see this play. You can even attend the performance on the 7th of January in the Stadsschouwburg in Groningen (http://www.de-oosterpoort.nl/programma/toneelgroep-amsterdam-de-meiden/). There are still some seats left! You can attend the performance in other cities as well.