Edinburgh Fringe, Greenside @ Infirmary Street, Jean Genet, Jean Genet's The Maids, Louis Hayward, Sam Bates, Saul Bache, Simon N W Winterman, Sudden Impulse Theatre Company, Theatre Review, Transgender, Transvestites
Sudden Impulse Theatre Company’s “The Maids” was literally a sudden impulse for me. Such is the pace of the Fringe that you will not know that a play exists and then twenty minutes later, after passing a venue by chance and scanning the overhead display board, you will be sitting in the audience.
Stumbling like a foal that is dazed from drinking too many gin and tonics, I thus clattered into Greenside @ Infirmary Street. It is always an enjoyable venue to visit, in that it usually feels like you are backstage during the preparations for a vast, anarchic student play. There is a cheerful informality and untidiness everywhere around you. People are milling about in costumes or parts of costumes, and this evening, in the foyer, two giggly performers are blowing up an inflatable man.
I had picked “The Maids” at random, assuming it to be an undergraduate romp about some saucy cleaners, but it turned out to be the “The Maids,” a rendition of the Jean Genet play from 1947. From glancing over Google, I gather that there has been recently a spate of fashionable and rather unsatisfactory productions of this piece, one of which had featured Cate Blanchett and another Mel Giedroyc. Sudden Impulse, however, play it straight, without any cumbersome embellishments. The only real flourish, and one which Genet would have quite obviously sanctioned, is to make the maids out of men: Saul Bache and Sam Bates play the two girls, Claire and Solonge; whilst Louis Hayward is Madam.
We are in Madam’s innermost boudoir, mostly when Madam is absent and her two employees are dressing up in her clothes, alternatively pretending to be her, and throttling and whipping each other in sadomasochistic burlesques of her own treatment of them. In this respect, the story bears a faint resemblance to “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” There will be something in this play to gratify every sexuality, though if you savour the crisp thwack of flowers slapping against naked skin then you will be especially pleased.
Suspense is often the motor of this powerful machine. Whether or not somebody will drink a poisoned cup of “tay” – whether or not Madam will unexpectedly return as her boudoir is being defiled – whether or not the maids will ever flash any more of their nudity – these uncertainties keep the drama whiplash taut. The ensemble admittedly embarks upon the violence with a greater gusto than they do the sex – which is not to say that the sensuality is too coy or a weak spot – but the performers are clearly happier in pain. We are usually flinching more than we are saucer-eyed.
These performers are the true, proper transvestites; arch and commanding, they look like they have escaped from a slightly inappropriate Cinderella. They are not like these academic trans who are currently always on Twitter, with the bureaucracy now backing them up, snivelling obscurely about their access to female-only prisons and toilets. These transvestites are strapping men with cojones – they are as magnificent as Vikings!
“The Maids” nonetheless does not stop at the subject of sex or even gender fluidity. Genet was a freedom fighter and his beef was with giving us more power over our own lives. The maids are entombed at the bottom of a kind of class claustrophobia. Their workplace is their home is their prison. They can never take a step out of their own maddened hatred of their employer, a jealousy that is reconfirmed all around them, wheresoever they turn. These maids can find beauty only in being bad – their limelight is the scaffold and they will create a sensation!