I recently wrote about my exhaustion at the sufferation narrative surrounding the roles black women play on screen. With the exception of Whoppi Goldberg and Jennifer Hudson, every single Academy Award won by a black actress has been for roles as slaves, maids or waitresses. My lamentations flew out the window when an invite to The Maids was extended to me. Starring double Emmy Award Winning Uzo Aduba (Orange Is The New Black), Zawe Ashton (Fresh Meat, Misfits) and Laura Carmichael (Downton Abbey), The Maids is the critically acclaimed play now running until May 21st at The Trafalgar Studios. However, my lamentations returned after the excitement of seeing Uzo Aduba, long the object of my affection, wore off. “The Maids” isn’t a euphemism for something else, I realised 20 minutes into the play, these women are actually maids. This is what I get for only going to see things based on the stars and shiny posters.
Skip down to my rating if you want to miss spoilers. Read on and hold on if you laugh in the face of spoilers.
Set entirely in the opulent bedroom of their Mistress (Carmichael) The Maids is about sisters Claire (Ashton) and Solange (Aduba) who plan the murder of their wealthy employer’s wife. Opening as Claire and Solange engage in a foul-mouthed role play of how they intend to murder their mistress, the word "cunt" is thrown around so often and so liberally it shocks the audience into understanding the level of degradation these women suffer as domestic help but more importantly gives motive to their desires to commit the murder. Based on the true story of the Papin Sisters who in 1933 France brutally murdered the wife and daughter of the master of the house, I found the casting of Aduba and Ashton problematic. While they both reduced me to tears with the commanding power with which the wielded their roles, as black women it is almost impossible to not draw a correlation between them as maids and slavery especially because the play is set in the pre-Civil Rights American South. Were there no other roles The Jamie Lloyd Company could present on the West End for Ashton, Aduba and Carmichael that would see them put against one another in racial terms? Jamie Lloyd himself says that it is exciting to see “two black women playing leading roles in the West End.” But what is not exciting for me is the continuation of the sufferation narrative.
I digress. Forcing myself to put aside race politics, hand on heart I can say the play is phenomenal. You want these two women to succeed in killing their mistress. When you finally meet Carmichael’s character (her entrance is how I want to enter every room from now on), you realise the torture these women have endured is as much physical as it is psychological and you want her to die. "Drink the tea!" you implore. Claire is the unhinged mastermind of the entire plan while Solange gives her the strength she needs to make their fantasies of freedom and revenge a reality. Claire announces “I am vigilant, not innocent” and it is then the audience understand the level of thought they have put into their actions. So acute is their suffering that these women are willing to sacrifice their morality. These women are intelligent and have to hide their intelligence from their employers and it is through Claire we see the negative effects it has on her as she is driven to madness. The relationship between the two sisters is layered and complex, veering into incest, and through it all I understand. When I was a waitress, how often did I fantasise about jumping over the counter and throttling a rude customer to death with the curry goat, rice and peas they demanded contained no bones? Or how often did my grandmother’s grandmother fantasise about hitting her plantation master off his horse, wrapping her hands around his throat until all the air left his body? I empathise with them. The play is an exercise in the relationship between the powerful and the powerless so expertly executed, of its own volition my body rose to its feet to give a standing ovation.
You have to see The Maids! All three women give performances that will affect your soul and have you thinking for days after you’ve left the theatre. I have to admit, I thought Uzo Aduba would dominate this play, such is her all encompassing presence, however, despite Aduba's relentless skill, Zawe Ashton meets her blow for blow. The two of them go toe to toe and neither of them back down. By the end of the play you are tired on their behalf, they leave it all on the stage. Laura Carmichael plays the grotesque cruelty and ignorance of wealth so well, you look forward to and welcome the promise of her death with open arms. These three women’s work on this play is awe-inspiring, you’d be doing a disservice to yourself to not see it.