Playing "The Maids"

Kaite O'Reilly
The Llanarth Group, Gaitkrash, Theatre P'yut
Chapter, Cardiff

Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo (madame, centre) with her four maids: Jeungsook Yoo, Regina Crowley, Sunhee Kim, Bernie Cronin Credit: Ger Fitzgibbon
Jeungsook Yoo and Sunhee Kim Credit: Ger Fitzgibbon

I was initially wary of reviewing Playing ‘The Maids’, fearing from the description in the publicity materials (“an international ensemble explores the dynamics of servitude”) that it belonged to a genre in which I was unversed. As it turns out, it belongs to a perplexing number of genres, both familiar and unfamiliar.

Kaite O’Reilly is the “official” playwright, but, as she has pointed out in a piece in online journal Exeunt, this is truly a collaborative piece. Her role is that of dramaturg, since she helped to shape the material into a narrative (of sorts), but there is significant input from all five actresses involved, as well as director Philip Zarrilli (obviously), sound artist Mick O’Shea and musician Adrian Curtin.

It is Curtin who welcomes the audience as we stumble in, greeting each startled theatre-goer to a cheery hello from behind his cello, where he sits adjacent to O’Shea and his desk of electronica. The set is largely bare, with bunches of artificial flowers hanging from the ceiling, and a rack of fine vestments at the rear.

The piece is inspired by Jean Genet’s story of murderous house-servants, which was itself based on an unfortunate incident which occurred in Paris in 1933, and was perceived by some as the unavoidable consequence of oppression. While the authors inevitably situate Playing ‘The Maids’ within the contemporary context of austerity, the cross-cultural nature of the casting and performance suggests themes which resonate across time and place—the characters, both rich and poor, are trapped by social position.

The sister-maids are played by two pairs of actresses: Bernadette Cronin and Regina Crowley from Ireland, and Koreans Jeungsook Yoo and Sunhee Kim. Toying with cultural stereotypes, they complement rather than mirror one another. The Irish pair are more verbal and bitchy, openly envious of their mistress’s lifestyle, and fantasising colourfully about killing one another. The Korean siblings are quieter and ostensibly more submissive, although their sadness is evident.

The imperious, capricious and only occasionally cruel Madame is played by Singaporean-Chinese Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo, who seems to have the most fun—primping, preening, and dressing up; flirting with audience-members during a pop-star fantasy interlude. Her long hair is allowed to flow freely, unlike that of her servants; and she wears a red sarong, whilst her underlings are restricted to dressing in black and white. Nevertheless, the dream world in which she lives seems to be a lonely one.

There is plenty of dialogue—in English, Gaelic, Korean and Mandarin Chinese—but this isn’t exactly a play. There is video back-projection (sometimes conveying translated text, sometimes displaying references to Genet), but not enough for the production to be termed “multi-media”. There are elements of movement which sometimes verge on the balletic, but this isn’t really a dance piece. There is music throughout—O’Shea and Curtin’s live score wittily mixes the familiar with the unsettling—but Playing ‘The Maids’ is not quite a musical.

However one characterises it, the piece is accessible and visually stimulating throughout. At around 80 minutes, it largely avoids self-indulgence; although one imagines that there were few members of the regrettably small audience who will have been on top of all the cultural references.

With moments of disarming humour, and a climax which throws the audience a curveball of symbolism rather than giving us the expected bloodbath, Playing ‘The Maids’ is a strange and beautiful concoction.

Reviewer: Othniel Smith

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