1st March 2016
There’s a really, really good idea for a play here. Take Genet’s ‘The Maids’, remove ‘Madame’ from the equation (although she is constantly dredged up in the form of songs), and let Solange and Claire fight it out in the guise of hysterical pop fans, aping their idol – in this case, the remote, only heard and never seen, Taylor Swift. Locate them in a hotel room, where they await hatching a plot to take over their hero’s life and launch themselves – a la ‘Ruthless People’ – out of anonymous drudgery and into a life of comfort and glamour. The bourgeois setting is not a very long way from Anhouilh, or even Feydeau, and can be approached as some sort of comedy of manners.
It’s a very clever idea, and writer Tom Stenton is to be congratulated for having formulated it and brought it thus far along the road to taking theatrical shape. But he has a struggle on his hands. Genet writes etiolated, intellectualised debates, where little attention is paid to creating ’rounded’ characters; this makes him fascinating, but bewildering to English theatre audiences. To do him justice in this country, it is usually necessary to do him in, and replace his vision with an entirely different one, one that feeds the public what it expects to consume in its theatres: three-dimensional, realistic portraits, grounded in realism – plenty of it – and laced with abundant humour and irony. Very little succeeds on the British stage that does not correspond in some profound sense to this paradigm.
Be that as it may, I don’t know how many five-star hotels frequented by pop stars and their entourages Mr Stenton has stayed in or even visited, but from this play I don’t get the feeling that it can have been very many. At one point, he even has a representative of the hotel staff – played by an uncredited, unseen third voice – come banging on the suite’s door before announcing to anyone within earshot that the police are downstairs in the lobby investigating some undisclosed matters, and that the occupants of the room – our intrepid heroines – should abandon all hope of ever hooking up with La Swift. I don’t know about you, but to me that doesn’t sound like quite the sort of thing that might happen at The Dorchester. If one can rely on one thing from top flight hotel staff, it is discretion.
Nevertheless, the work has been passed into the hands of director Luke Davies, who scored a bit of a hit recently with his production of ‘The HIV Monologues’: here, he is on perhaps less familiar ground and his handling of the material seems often unsure and haphazard. He seems either unaware of the unusual demands Genet makes, or uninterested in them. The overuse of music – it drones on through nearly every exchange – is a sign of his insecurity. He lets his actors – the Tay(lor) look-alike, Tanya Cubric, and the put-upon side-kick, Isabella Niloufar – go through what seems to be a sequence of drama school improvisations, in the hope that they will arrive, somehow, at valid interpretations of their roles, and – with any luck – a meaningful production. Well, they give it their best shot, and from time to time they do succeed. Niloufar has just been cast as the lead in the National’s forthcoming ‘Salome’, and – eventually – it is possible to see why. Cubric (recently seen starring on Sky Atlantic’s ‘The Tunnel’) pulls out all the stops with her incarnation as the demanding pop goddess, and does everything humanly possible to make her character’s journey seem real. The pair of them are never less than watchable. But their tragic comedy is a very tricky beast to pin down. A longer rehearsal period with a more experienced director might have helped. As things are, the actors come across as being left to struggle with the impenetrable surface of the material, which seems a little unfair on them – and us.
Stenton’s script doesn’t do them many favours. For example, we are a very, very long way through it before we find out that the girls are from Luton: this comes as a blindingly illuminating revelation – suddenly, the squealing, leaping, posing wannabes take on meaningful form. Why on earth the author waits so long to establish his characters I cannot imagine: I mean, it’s hardly a state secret, is it? Interestingly, another ‘version’ of ‘The Maids’ was seen only a matter of months ago, and ran into similar problems of opacity. Instructively, at about the same time as that, its 1947 companion piece, ‘Deathwatch’, was given in a compelling rendition by David Rudkin at The Print Room, directed with finesse by Geraldine Alexander, who used a bold design concept and a high level of stylisation, combined with her powerfully experienced actors, to whom she gave as few moves as possible, in order to get the result of a pretty focussed and – in its way – credible production. Those two qualities – focus, and credibility – are very elusive in Genet. Stenton and Davies may have realised that by now.
Til 11 March 2017
Photos: Luke Davies