Gandhi. Nigella Lawson. Rosemary West. Martin Luther King. Hitler. A confusing array of pictures and newspaper cuttings project onto the screen at the start of HOME’s production of The Maids. What’s the connection?

Nestled amongst the cuttings lies a photograph of Christine and Léa Papin, the French maids who murdered their mistress and whose story is said to have provided inspiration for the play.  Playwright Jean Genet, who viewed himself as the “poet of the underworld”, has seemingly embellished the true-crime story of homicidal help in order to turn his dark subject matter into art.

Aesthetics and image are central ideas that are drawn out in HOME’s production; the staging and Ruari Murchison’s design are cleverly devised to give primacy to the visuals. The titular servants, sisters Claire (Jake Fairbrother) and Solange (Luke Mullins), treat their employer’s clothes as costumes to act out their unnerving role-play. Prison imagery abounds.  Tiered circular steps are an ever-present sign of hierarchy. A sand timer is carefully downlit to highlight the passing of time. Thrown like darts into the circular floor, fake flowers sit as a reminder of the dangers of valuing appearance over reality. Meanwhile, the video stream in widescreen, often drawing attention away from the stage, seems to symbolise a particularly contemporary concern with the image we project.

That is not to say, however, that the production is lacking in verbal force. All three actors use their voice effectively – Mullins and Fairbrother’s subtle shifts in tone show who is in charge and who is playing the oppressed at any one time and Danny Lee Wynter’s Mistress offers some bittersweet comic moments amid all the weirdness. Yet, staying true to Genet’s vision, this translation by Martin Crimp is undoubtedly poetic, often in moments where the content ventures into the debased.

The way the production plays with the apparent dichotomy between high art and carnal instincts (the dialogue and characters’ gestures are littered with erotic, incestuous undercurrents) makes it challenging viewing and Lily Sykes’ direction seems focused on exploiting the audience’s feelings of discomfort by transgressing boundaries. Even as we sit waiting for the show to start, masked actors play with our personal belongings and taunt us. Later, pre-recorded laughter and applause makes us conscious of our stunned silence.

People like patterns, structures and order to feel safe and make sense of the world. This play knowingly refuses to give us the sense of reassurance we crave.

The Maids is at HOME, Manchester until Saturday 1 December

Photograph by Jonathan Keenan

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