Chelmsford Theatre Workshop at the Old Court
Jean Genet's seminal play is now sixty years old. It has never had an easy ride with the critics. Too long, unhealthy, unactable.
In those grey postwar years, the dark tale of jealousy, dressing up and secret longings in garret bedrooms was shocking and daring. Nowadays it all seems very tame, and yet the frisson is still there beneath the flowery language and the evening gowns.
Keith Hiscox's brave production began promisingly. Madame's opulent bed dominates the set. Claire enters in stylish slow motion. Her sister Solange wears an irresistible combination of a black maid's uniform and yellow Marigolds. The ending, too, was effective: the shock of discovery, the blending into the curtain call.
But these moments were separated by 90 minutes – no interval, and not much variety – of difficult dialogue. Rebecca Errington was the dull, older [?] Solange, and worked hard at her character, especially in her monologue. Claire was Katherine Tokley, switching effectively from aping her mistress to teasing her sister. Emma Moriaty was a formidable Madame, oppressive and overbearing.
As Genet says in the play, it's a dangerous game. And if the risk didn't quite come off in this production, this is just the sort of edgy piece CTW should include at least once in every season.
this is the longer review I was commissioned to write for the CTW newsletter
Prostitute, poet, playwright, legionnaire and jail-bird – Jean Genet is the first author mentioned in Alan Bennett's new book The Uncommon Reader.
Genet’s second-best play – and probably his most performed – was an interesting choice by Keith Hiscox to follow last year's impressive Oleanna. Is it Absurdist ? Theatre of Cruelty ? Melodrama ? Sisters, servants, sinners – as the strapline for the film version has it.
The mood was massaged with some rather obvious French chansons as we studied the vast bedroom set. The silky satin was just right, but the gold drapes didn't really come off – neither stylised nor realistic. That's not to say what might have taken their place – on a bigger, more sophisticated stage I suppose just blackness into the distance of the wings. The furniture looked good, though both the doors were wrong for their period and the rest of the dressing. I liked the ticking clock, emphasising the fear of discovery and disgrace.
Most of the lighting was frontal, apart from the return behind the door. More depth and mystery might have been achieved with subtler effects.
I loved the slowly opening door and the whole sequence at the top of the show. We might have welcomed more of that kind of expressionist style in the body of the piece.
The dialogue is a huge stumbling block. I've no problem with the translation – not credited in the programme – though I am pretty sure that the “crowns worn” in the funeral fantasy are in fact wreaths carried. But like the work of Orton, it is not naturalistic dialogue. The challenge is to make the stilted, heightened words work. “You frittered away my frenzies”, did I hear someone say ? You can't treat that kind of writing as if it's lines from East Enders “ Calm down, yeah” being the worst example.
The erotic charge between the two sisters is hard to gauge – here we had something more akin to puppy love, which would probably not have satisfied Genet. The text points us to the shared attic bed, dreams about each other, not to mention the milkman. I might have expected these two sisters to be more tactile. The intimacy, when it came, was less believable for being so out of character. We see a woman lashed with insults to climax – shuddering with pleasure. Should this have been more erotic, more explicit ?
Katherine Tokley was Claire, seemingly the dominant sister, playing the Mistress in the first piece of play-acting. I liked the way it slowly became apparent that this was a fake: this revealed theatricality is one of the strengths of the piece. Rebecca Errington's Solange was a nicely characterised wild child, though her hair would certainly not pass muster, and seemed to get in the way. Her devotion seemed child-like and simple, rather than dark and devious. All three actresses were younger than one might imagine – these are maids who have grown old in the service of Madame, played with a strong sense of style by Emma Moriaty.
It’s often said that Genet wanted boys to play all three roles. This is sometimes done, and it does underline the major theme of play acting and pretence.
I often sit watching productions fantasising about how I could have done it so much better. But this piece defeated my imagination, I'm afraid. So all credit to Hiscox and his team for giving it a welcome staging. Maybe it needed a more radical “vision”, with theatrical style imposed over the text. More relishing of the language, rather than a naturalistic delivery.
Or let’s risk everything and bring on the boys …