Often, when we think of the mistreatment of the mentally ill and the violation of their rights we focus on institutional exploitation of those who are incarcerated.
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Graduates of Insanity
It’s all too rare to encounter modern/modernist theatre on the Trinidadian stage. Truly challenging roles for experienced or aspiring actors are consequently another rarity. Playing for laughs and its attendant flaw of over-acting have unfortunately become the norm for local actors, however gifted. In the context of this wilderness, it was doubly refreshing to see some of the graduands of the first-ever cohort of UTT Theatre Arts BA programme tackle the wide ranging demands and challenges of Jean Genet’s one act play The Maids, at the Little Carib theatre on March 5-6.
While Genet’s script has been labeled as “Absurdist”, in that it largely ignores the conventions of realist drama, what the student production revealed more than 60 years after the play’s premiere in Paris, was its true affinity with psychodrama. It might be far more productive, in terms of interpretation to compare Genet’s work with the claustrophobic incestuous imaginary of classical Greek tragedy – notably Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, or his Antigone (a modern French version by Jean Anouilh performed only three years before The Maids). Other useful comparisons could be made with the works of the Marquis de Sade (sexual slavery, sado-masochism, domination), Catholic pornographer Georges Bataille (eroticism and death) and the aura of menace which pervades more contemporary works, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), or Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1957).
If we are to consider “Absurdism” (meaningless human existence, where communication breaks down and logic surrenders to the irrational and illogical) then it becomes apparent that besides being an excellent test piece for actors, The Maids has much that is relevant to contemporary Trinidadian society — from the noise and cussing to the frequent occurrences of sexual violence, incest and domination. The psychopathology of Master (or in this case Mistress) and slave relations, colonial, postcolonial and neocolonial relations, all contribute to further resonances, as does Genet’s persona –as sexual and social deviant defying and subverting the norms of bourgeois society. It’s highly unlikely that a professional production of The Maids would be successful (in box office terms) with Trinidad’s (largely bourgeois) theatre-going public. For all the chat about gay rights, it’s even more doubtful that Genet could outride the deeply entrenched substratum of homophobia, which is another marker of local hypocrisy.
In light of all of the above, it was a brave choice for a student production and a singular sign of serious commitment to drama, in its most problematic and taboo-troubling form, excavating elements of the human condition, which we would mostly like to ignore, but always at the cost of further damage. The set design (by Edwin Erminy) combined realistic Parisian elegance (chandeliers, antique furniture) with a gauze backdrop lit in mauve, (suggestive of the unreality of the Maids’ sado-masochistic role play) and five bare wood picture frames (whose story board emptiness echoed the ultimate futility of the concentric scenes enacted). Claire, the older sister (played by Karian Forde) in her role as Madame, initiated the pas de deux of degradation, abuse, revulsion and hatred, to her younger sister Solange’s “Claire” (played by Arayna Mohammed). Forde in burlesque style parodied Madame’s haughtiness and its obverse self-pity perfectly, to Mohammed’s overly submissive mouse, (eyes cast down, wringing hands) who in an instant was capable of transforming into a wildcat, talons flashing.
The slippage of identity (Solange/Claire, Madame/Claire) served to accentuate the Maids’ helplessness, two mice playing while the cat is away, but playing in a trap from which the only possible escape is the murder they cannot commit. The uneasy dependency bond between captor and captive, torturer and tortured, powerful and powerless (“She’ll corrupt us with her sweetness”) was well developed in the sisters’ self-abasement– “Nobody loves us –She does, she adores us like she adores her pink enamel toilet seat” as well as references to “stifling” and “suffocating”. Stretching the homicidal tension were sibling sexual rivalries (over the milkman as well as Madame’s jailed lover) simmering below the role play and erupting momentarily to displace hatred for Madame, for hatred of each other compounded with the self-hatred of the dominated. A phone call from Madame’s lover to say that he’s out of jail on bail recalls the sisters from their Hamlet-style procrastination, as Claire who in her own role declares: “I’m ready” (to kill) but immediately undermines her affirmative violence with the pathetic reality of her enforced domestic hell: “I’m tired of having a stove for an altar.” On tenterhooks animated by Madame’s anticipated arrival, the role playing reaches frenetic proportions of abuse and abnegation (“I want to comfort you but I know I disgust you. I’m repulsive to you.”) as roles are switched. Mohammed handled her transitions from submissive to sociopath, as ably as she did the illusory lull on the divan, the younger sister luring her older sibling with erotic incestuousness disguised as comfort, before Claire cuts her off with a peremptory—“No weakness.” A tea tray, replete with silver teapot, contents laced with sleeping pills, is hastily prepared.
Madame’s arrival introduces a vaudeville-like interlude, temporarily suspending the sisters’ psychodrama for comic tension over whether she’ll drink the poisoned tea. In her cameo role Kemlon Nero conveyed the necessary histrionic narcissism, vacuity and spite making the maids’ hatred credible. Her continual references to “the penal colony” which in her delusory martyrdom she’s prepared to follow Monsieur to, serve to twist the screws tighter on her domestics’ dementia, as do her retracted gifts of dress and fur coat and her final rejection of the proffered cup of tea in favour of celebratory champagne once she’s learns Monsieur is out on bail. Madame’s exit signals the descent into an inferno of psychosis, as the sisters’ switched role play (Solange/Madame, Claire as Claire) “skips preliminaries” and full throttles into the extreme abuse and self hatred of the trapped and powerless. “Crawl like a worm!” commands Solange, before the backdrop light turns red and Claire disappears offstage. Mohammed was convincing enough in her final derangement for the audience to believe that “Madame is dead, laid out on the linoleum, strangled with a dishcloth…This time Solange has gone through with it”. But the trap has long been sprung, and Claire drifts on from the wings as Solange intones the dirge of the maids’ real and self-inflicted hell: “Madame must sleep and you must stay awake.”
Whatever the assessment the UTT examiners make, from an audience perspective this student production met professional standards. The two main actresses rarely faltered, no mean achievement when you’re onstage for 90 minutes plus. The intensity of the script and its demands of switching mood without losing momentum were well met. For this critic at least, all student members of cast and crew deserve honours and if not cum laude, certainly to well earned applause.
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