The Maids by Jean Genet, directed by Katie Mitchell

played at L’Autre Scène du Grand Avignon – Vedène

Tyranny puts on the new face of modernity

In The Maids directed by Katie Michtell, tyranny puts on a new face. For those who remember the book written by Jean Genet, this new version might be somewhat disturbing. Yet, her work shows both respect for the book and its main universal themes, and her capacity to bring original ideas into a more complex world, giving it a new breath of modernity.

The staging deals with the same themes: domination, the pulse of death and murder in the relationship between the two servants, Solange and Claire, (magnificently played by Marieke Heebink and Chris Nietvelt) and their wealthy, tyrannical mistress. In a clear inversion of roles, when their mistress is away, Solange and Claire play her role, impersonate her, mistreating each other. However, there is a first change: the action takes place nowadays, and in a different place: Amsterdam. Claire and Solange are now two immigrants from Poland. We guess that these exploited underpaid women, living in dire straits, represent the new working class of Europe for Katie Mitchell, in an age of immigration. Some people would call it political correctness.

Besides, the mistress (Thomas Cammaert), is no longer a woman, but a cross-dresser. Through Katie Mitchell’s eyes, the play becomes more a reflection about patriarchy than about the domination of some women over others. She explains that she refuses to tell the story of a woman dominating others. Therefore, one must understand that this feminist vision, embodied in De Maiden, becomes an incandescent vision of the world in this Avignon festival 2017.

mitchell

De Meiden © Christophe Raynaud de Lage

Therein lies the power of the play, it is about the complexity of our world, its ambiguities. There is a fine line between dominant and dominated. Being a cross-dresser is indeed rather closer to the dominant, in our society; but domination in this play is of a social nature. The staging reinforces the domination of the mistress. A cozy all white apartment, a big bed for the mistress; her clothes and jewels on the left, the corridor on the right. We guess life is easy for her. It is also a very cold environment, as if the world had become frozen, out of time, suggested by the light effects and the slow-motion scenes which contrast with the realism of the show. What we have in front of us is not a mirror of the world, but rather the world seen through a magnifying-glass.

Tension gradually builds up as the story unfolds, and is reinforced through the music. The maids plan to kill their mistress and keep rehearsing their “ceremony” where they play her role. But the balance of power is disrupted, and the ground is shrinking beneath their feet. They have tried to get rid of Monsieur by having him thrown into prison, but he has been freed. Time is running out, as suggested by the slow-motion scenes.

This is about the illusion of choice. According to Spinoza, “Men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]”. Madame never drinks the poisonous herbal tea as if she were aware of what was going on (“this is a tomb” she says during the play, when she sees all the white flowers around her bed), and Mister is free. As the pieces come together as in a puzzle, death appears as the only fate for Claire and Solange. There is no free-will, and the servants are like flies caught in a spider’s web. Katie Mitchell shows in this play a great capacity in giving a voice to the weak, those who are doomed to death from the very beginning.

David Pauget

 

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