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The Maids

Based on the play by Genet
Barbican Theatre
(2003)

Even though this 'dance theatre' production of The Maids dispenses with Genet's original text, if the author were still alive he would be deliriously happy to see his vision explored so thoroughly and realised with such scintillating and disturbing sensuality. Director Yoshi Oida and his performers have left Genet's tantalising ambiguity intact but have embodied human emotions with remarkable refinement. The body has a voice, a powerful alternative to verbal speech, but appealing to us nonetheless with a richness of expression, through an inconspicuous route to our consciousness, that words become inadequate in comparison.

Oida has spent the last thirty years as one of Peter Brook's most renowned collaborators at the Bouffe du Nord in Paris, the International Centre for Theatre Research, where multiculturalism has long extended the exploration of theatrical form beyond the Western traditions. In The Maids he has brought his Japanese aesthetic to bear on the staging. The stark simplicity of the black, frugal space provides a calm backdrop to flashes of sumptuous colour, flamboyant emotions and teasing humour. There is an awareness of quiet at the core of chaos. Three decades of physical training in non-western movement are evident in his collaboration with performers/choreographers Ismael Ivo and Koffi Koko. Yet, this is not a piece of director's theatre. Oida's expertise is unobtrusive; it carries the stamp of his creative relationship with Peter Brook in that it is stripped of conventional theatre 'tricks', 'seamlessly' revealing human dynamics 'truthfully'. Elegance rubs against roughness. But this is a performer's piece par excellence. And what performers!

Genet, brilliantly original writer, thief, ex-con and homosexual, was something of an enfant terrible in Paris after his discovery by director Roger Blin, who also discovered Beckett. The criminal underworld was always his preferred milieu, the thrust of his work ever anti-bourgeois, deliberately fetishistic in his celebration of perversity. Yet Genet's works are deeply humane and protective of social outcasts, misfits and the oppressed.

One of his most well-known and most performed pieces, The Maids is the tale of two sisters, envious maids to the wealthy, self-centred and imperious Madame. In her absence they plunder her coveted wardrobe and act out the rituals of dominance and submission. Genet, ever controversial and pushing at the boundaries of bourgeois French theatre, stipulated that the female roles should all be performed by men and to ignore his direction, as has often been the case, is to miss the point of the play. Cross-dressing and gender-bending are hardly as transgressive as they were in the '60s, but Oida and his all-male cast have negotiated potential clichés by embodying the metaphor of imprisonment and fore-fronting it in the staging. The maids are prisoners both literally and in the imagination with Madame as their uniformed gaoler. In doing so, they have freed themselves to ritualise the donning and displaying of the desired but elusive femininity with glorious blasts of brilliantly coloured swathes of material and exuberant hats.

This is a modern adaptation and interpretation that does Genet's play justice. Ivo and Koko have a connection on stage that is riveting, and the production's consummate modesty allows moments of unexpected profundity to overwhelm the senses.

Like many of his contemporaries, the alumni of Continental theatre debate, Genet rejected traditional European conventions in favour of a ritual drama. The Chinese Opera and Balinese theatre were inspirational. Oida, trained from childhood in the ritual theatre of his native Japan has gathered a multicultural cast of performers with quite a staggering diversity of skills and styles at their expressive disposal. Ismael Ivo, Koffi Koko and Ziya Azazi lift the term 'dance theatre' into an entirely new dimension with this 'seamless' blend of east and west. And, ever true to the fundamentals of ritual, they make a generous gift of themselves in performance. An entrancing, yet unobtrusive soundscape, courtesy of Joao de Bruço, enhances the fluctuation of mood.

I am actually stumped for words to convey an adequate impression of this seemingly simple, yet complex and utterly magnificent production. Essentially, this is a production which translates feelings into physical impetus and conveys them in a way more powerful that rational perception. To translate the feelings back into words illuminates their fallibility. But I doubt that I will ever have to eat my words if I say that it is probably the most remarkable performance I have ever seen in a life spent in the performing arts. It is a celebration of artistic diversity, of universality, of all those aspects of performance Peter Brook has worked to integrate in forty years of promoting a non-realist form that is more recognisably truthful to human experience than realism itself. And this production by Oida and his collaborators is an absolute triumph. Don't miss it.

"The Maids" runs until 29th November

Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher