Playing ‘The Maids’ is a fascinating piece, both in itself, and because of it is the result of a collaboration between international theatre companies and artists. Though the title relates to Jean Genet’s The Maids this is not a reworking of that text; instead, to co-create this new work, the nine collaborators, including director Phillip Zarrilli and the Llanarth Group’s, resident dramaturg Kaite ‘O Reilly, have chosen to use Genet’s text as a stimulus to create a contemporary montage which includes text, music, psychophysical scores and choreography. These elements are creatively woven together and the production also draws on the individual ensemble members’ cultural perspectives, seeking to challenge the audience’s preconceptions about the piece’s themes.
Bernadette Cronin and Regina Crowley (from Gaitkrash in Ireland) and Jeungsook Yoo and Sunhee Kim (of Theatre P’ yut from Korea) play two sets of poor ‘sister-maids’, who are in service to a Chinese ‘madame’. The piece takes many themes from Genet’s text and places them into a contemporary, global setting: wealth-as-privilege, sibling rivalry, power and modern servitude.
At the beginning of the piece we are made very aware that we are watching a performance: these people are not maids but, they will each play the part of a maid. In character, both pairs seek to protect their ‘sister’ and then, within a heartbeat, they express the urge to kill them. Their methods of disposal become ever more bizarre and graphic. Then they revert to being full of warmth and tenderness to each other.
This tension between tenderness and cruelty is a major recurring theme of the piece, embodied, with ostentatious superiority, by the ‘madame’ (played by Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo) who shows both tenderness (holding the maids close to her and stroking their hair) and extreme cruelty. Madame wears beautiful outfits and while the maids wear frilly white aprons, designed to disguise their true identities. Madame’s dresses hang throughout on-stage like ghosts surrounded by hanging bunches of flowers, waiting for her to breathe life into them. When dressed by the maids who, often comically, bustle and fuss around her, she enjoys the spotlight, (at one point singing and flirting with the audience.) However, the production makes us aware that she is also in servitude to a higher power, and this adds a strong sense of melancholy to the piece which is interwoven with the humour.
The piece acts a commentary on modern slavery. This is shown through both movement and language, not only English but also Mandarin, Korean and Irish Gaelic. Some of this is translated, some of it projected; the use of multiple languages is far from being alienating, and is one of its strongest elements. Sound designer, Mick O’Shea and cellist Adrian Curtin are present on stage throughout. ‘O Shea provides an immersive and intuitive electronic underscore throughout, created using a mass of equipment on a long table. The music itself almost becomes another character on stage. This creates an unforeseen tension for the audience – do we watch the action on stage or O’Shea to see his response to it? Curtin’s playing is beautiful, and it’s sometimes possibly to see him visiably pulling back to allow the action to speak for itself.
The production has a lot to say about the problems facing our global society. With the creative team having only a short amount of time together, they were forced to find a shared language in rehearsals to produce this multi-layered work, and it is this sense of communication and cooperation that gives the production much of its resonance.
Kaite O’Reilly and Adrian Curtin on international dramaturgy and Playing ‘The Maids’