Jamie Lloyd is not the first director to cast black actors as Jean Genet’s murderous maids. In doing so, he directly contravenes the playwright’s advice. Genet warned against flattening a slippery examination of identity into a straightforward condemnation of society’s racism — and that’s exactly what happens here. Lloyd’s production, which stars Uzo Aduba (“Orange is the New Black”), rising British star Zawe Ashton and Laura Carmichael of “Downton Abbey,” plugs the play into contemporary American politics, but loses the things that makes it so rich, potent and unsettling in the process.
Genet’s story jumps off from the real-life case of the Papin sisters, Christine and Léa, who, in 1933, murdered their mistress and her adult daughter with a hammer. It became a society scandal, as shocking because of their gender as because of their jobs. To some they became a symbol of social upheaval; to others, a psychological case study.
Written ten years later, “The Maids” turns the murder into a ritual on repeat. Whenever their mistress leaves the house, Genet’s maids — renamed Solange (Aduba) and Claire (Ashton) — take turns dressing in her clothes, adopting her mannerisms and ordering one another about. It’s a warped routine, glinting with sadomasochism, powerplay, envy and self-loathing and it ends, again and again, in a fanciful enactment of revenge. The oddity is heightened by the language, a spew of perfumed imagery and bile. At last, Claire plans to put performance into practice.
Lloyd uses Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s adaptation, seen in New York two years ago with Cate Blanchett as Claire, which makes Madame a young superbrat rather than a haughty old mistress. Played by Carmichael in a glittery Gaga-esque outfit, she’s a repellent squeal of a woman, pampered and petulant, lacking all self-awareness. She palms off hand-me-downs on her maids — a McQueen dress and a fur-coat — then snatches them back. It’s not her insults that sting, but her obliviousness. “Which one are you?” she breezes. Solange and Claire are so insignificant they become, essentially, invisible — uniforms, not individuals; not even servants, but service.
With Aduba and Ashton both using American accents, Lloyd frames the play in terms of racial and economic inequality. The two maids stand starched stiff when on duty, adopting the posture that’s required of and imposed upon them, but, when at ease, they transform. Aduba hangs loose, her gait that of a southpaw slugger, while Ashton becomes louche. Their speech-patterns shift too: not formal, but freeform. “We takin’ shape and we risin’ up,” hollers Aduba’s Solange — a fierce presence, straight off the streets. It’s like they’re reclaiming their bodies and voices from the white postures imposed by employment.
However, for all that the casting makes images of slavery and whiteness ping out, it feels like shorthand for something far more complex. Lloyd smoothes the edges off both the politics and the play.
By thinking so strongly in socio-political terms, he underplays the script’s psychological edge. That’s where its charge lies: in the sisters’ totemic rituals. Here, their roleplay looks like straightforward, quite reasonable revolt, not the slippery, pseudo-sexual catharsis that Genet intended. Ashton seems to lampoon her mistress rather than luxuriating in the impression, and since she and Aduba play down their sisterhood, there’s no flicker of taboo.
In fact, charge is largely absent. For all its expletives and bodily terminology, Andrews and Upton’s text is oddly leaden, while Gilmour’s funereal four-poster stage, with its showers of rose petals, lands the imagery of death without its sting. Even Jon Clark’s strip-lighting, throwing inconstant shadows, and Ben and Max Ringham’s rumbling score don’t get under the skin.
Lloyd knows how to draw crowds, and he has a knack for star casting that makes taxing plays into must-see shows. In striving for stark visuals and bold-type concepts, however, he runs the risk of over-simplifying — exactly as Genet anticipated.