Assembly George Square Studios – Studio Two
When The Maids was staged for the first time in 1947, the Parisian public didn’t even spare an applause. After the premiere, one of the actors wrote about the horror of an auditorium completely silent. Nowadays audiences seem to be more polite and clap even when not fully appreciating a show, perhaps for fear of coming across as the silly ones who didn’t understand it. Considering the rapturous applause at the end of this South Korean reinterpretation of the Jean Genet classic, I’ve been wondering whether everyone was already familiar with this hard to navigate play, or else, they were just afraid to look silly. Of course, there’s also the third possibility that I was the only one who didn’t get it.
In the plot, two sisters called Claire and Solange are employed as maids in Madame’s house and, when she’s out, take turns in pretending to be her: when Claire plays Madame, Solange plays Claire and so on. Their favourite scene to enact? Killing their mistress, obviously!
This production presented by MOO SOO offers a stripped-down version that doesn’t include any significant changes in costume, body language, lighting or sound which could guide one’s attention in any possible way. For the first half, verbal exchange is kept to a minimum and there is very little use of music – I’d go as far as to say that if one doesn’t know the story already, there’s very little to cling to. It is a demanding piece per se, with a deliberately minimal staging that relies on its audience to fill the gaps of a stylised narrative. Throughout, movement is kept to very basic figures that may or may not suggest what is supposed to be happening in that sequence.
With so very little action, I struggled to keep my attention engaged, until one bewildering, final act. As we approach the end, tension escalates. The maids start frantically fiddling with two buckets and a bedsheet, covering the floor and themselves in soapy water. The dialogues (rigorously in Korean) become more relentless, until very little is done and most of it is told. The two sisters are arguing, shouting or begging each other but, without subtitles and an unlikely fluency in Korean, the message is lost. It seems obvious at this point that the creatives didn’t deem understanding the language a crucial part of the spectator’s enjoyment here in Edinburgh, but why then include so much spoken word? Unless this is a deliberate means of further alienation. Who knows?
This play should come with a warning that audiences need to know the story beforehand in order to appreciate it. For the others, it’s just too unapproachable and entirely misses the mark.
Original Written by: Jean Jenet
Adapted, Directed and Produced by: MOO SOO Theatre group / Korean Season presented by AtoBiz
The Maids plays at EdFringe 2023 until 27 August, 1:05pm at Assembly, George Square Studios. Further information and bookings here.