The class struggle is an innate part of Jean Genet’s The Maids but the mark of many a good drama that has endured for several decades is its ability to handle new interpretations by the directors who seek to revive them. Jamie Lloyd refracted the play through the lens of American racial politics for his visually striking production at the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year and ever the iconoclast, Katie Mitchell, making her directorial debut at Toneelgroep Amsterdam, chooses to put a migrant labour spin on her more naturalistic version.
So sisters Claire and Solange here are middle-aged Polish women – underpaid, underappreciated and in at least one case, really quite ill – who have found work keeping house for Madame, or rather keeping her super-luxe apartment. The relationship is a complex one though as we see them passing the time by enacting and re-enacting the ritualistic murder of their employer, raging against the system in the only way that they can – in secret, in private, away from the eyes of a Western society that doesn’t really give a fuck when it is oppressing.
Marieke Heebink and Chris Nietvelt, frequently switching between their native Dutch and Polish speech, are a compelling pair even through the dressed-down dowdiness of their pinnies and pulled-back hair. The richness of their fantasy life is compounded by the fabulousness of Madame’s wardrobe, glamorous in the extreme from its gowns to hairpieces (practical too with lots of Spanx in there). For when Madame arrives, it’s in the strikingly statuesque form of Thomas Cammaert and we see yet another wrinkle that Mitchell has introduced.
For the heightened femininity that they’re aping is now yet another step removed from them, as evidenced by the inelegant moment where Nietvelt’s Solange dons a rubber glove to untuck Cammaert’s Madame. There’s little overt exploration of the trans issues here, little subtlety too in the brazen ghastliness of the character, but it offers a fascinating reappraisal of the gender politics at stake, the roles that people adopt versus the roles that people are forced to take and just how far that distance is – the luxury of choice for the haves.
Chloe Lamford’s set encloses the action in a hyper-realistic space, intelligently lit by James Farncombe to give the re-enactment scenes the touch of shadowed fantasy they need. And Mitchell employs her slow motion technique at three key intervals, working for me better here than I’ve ever seen before, in the brutal hopelessness that accompanies the sisters’ despairing machinations. And if it is a little vague on the sexual identity side, De Meiden offers a searing individualistic take on the European migrant situation.