They say that power corrupts; but in his iconic 1947 drama The Maids, Jean Genet’s suggestion is that complete lack of power also has the same effect, and that it’s not so much power itself, as its unequal distribution through society, that finally drives men and women mad.
The play is set in an elegant and luscious Paris apartment, where three women play games. One is the mistress, who plays the role of the beautiful and generous if sometimes capricious employer, with a romantic life so dramatic and distracting that she often forgets her maids’ names, despite their long years of service. And the other two are the maids, middle-aged sisters Solange and Claire, trapped in a lifetime of servitude, and driven to work out their frustrations, when their mistress is away, through a dangerous, erotically-charged game in which Claire plays an ever more imperious version of the mistress - dressing up in her gorgeous clothes and jewellery - while Solange becomes a rebellious version of herself and her sister, turning on the mistress and threatening to murder her.
It’s a brilliantly theatrical and intensely political idea, delivered with huge relish in this new Dundee Rep production by Eve Jamieson, which stars Anne Louise Ross and Irene Macdougall in fine form as The Maids, and Emily Winter as a hilariously self-dramatising mistress. Jamieson’s production leans towards the macabre, as Tim Mascall’s lighting and David Paul Jones’s score - playing across Kenneth Macleod’s gorgeous boudoir set - offer fine filmic moments of crashing terror and creeping shadow; there’s perhaps slightly too much emphasis on what the sisters might have learned from the sensational murder magazines they devour, and not enough on the sheer existential despair that drives them to make their game a reality.
Yet despite the continuing debate about what kind of tone works best for Genet’s masterpiece - the angry or the absurd, the jocular or the plain grotesque - this remains a fascinating production, full of ideas and intelligence, with the two sisters wearing ankle-tags that recall Genet’s own early career as a thief and petty criminal. On either side of the stage, there are two perspex boxes in which the sisters sit like prisoners or exhibits, when they are off stage; and as the jolting conclusion of this production reminds us, our society still has ways of stripping people of power and keeping them caged, no matter how much more equal we imagine we have become, or how much better at distributing power and opportunity, to poor working-class women like Claire and Solange.
Until 4 November