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the maids

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director katie mitchell
from jean genet
duration 1:45
premiere 11 Dec 2016


‘I consistently focus my attention on female experience and perception. There aren’t many female directors and somebody has to do it. I feel like it is my responsibility.’ says Katie Mitchell. It is therefore not surprising that she is directing Jean Genet’s The maids at Toneelgroep Amsterdam.


A game within the game: that is how The Maids begins. For years, sisters Claire and Solange have been housemaids of their ‘madame’ in a large house in the city. In her bedroom, they take turns pretending to be madame. Madame has gone to prison to visit her lover who has been convicted based on false anonymous letters, which were written by the maids. And now the two sisters want to kill their mistress. They have devised a good plan, but will they be able to execute it?

Jean Genet is the ideal resistance writer. In all of his works, he resists the law, the values of the bourgeois society he hates. His heroes are the outcasts. He provides an excellent description of himself when he writes: ‘I have permanently put myself forward as the spokesman of the human scum that rots away in jails, under the bridges, in the fetid dregs of the cities.’ Genet literally puts them in the spotlight. While a maid usually doesn’t make an entrance on stage more than once and is only given a couple of words to say at the most, Genet reverses the roles. The maid becomes the leading part.

In her feminism-inspired work, Katie Mitchell consistently focuses on female experience and perception. In her staging of the story, Claire and Solange are Polish immigrants. That is how Mitchell makes the existing power relations within the play more current. She also casts a new light on sexual identity: madame has become a male transvestite. Man and woman, ruler and oppressor: they are all roles. Mitchell doesn’t just show how they are reproduced and confirmed, but equally how they can be undermined.

For The maids (1947), Genet was inspired by a sensational historic event from 1933: after years of loyal service, the two Sapin sisters murdered their two mistresses with a hammer and a knife. Why did they do it? Out of frustration about the relations between the classes? Out of anger and envy?

These are the ideal ingredients for a social drama. But The maids is much more than that. The play shows the eternal human desire to escape the bleakness of reality. Claire and Solange do it through roleplay. But to them, this game is not an innocent way to pass the time. They lose themselves in the roleplay so much that fantasy and reality become entangled. The ending is fatal.


‘To perform in a play by Mitchell is precision work: like in a choreography, she thinks of every action and fixes everything.  Chris Nietvelt and Marieke Heebink have an excellent command of this; they play their roles full of emotions, fighting spirit, despair and surrender. The maids is a matchless interplay, directed in a surprisingly clear, contemporary way.’ Het Parool


Katie Mitchell about The maids

‘Even seventy years after the first performance in Paris, The maids is still a powerful play. I love the three strong female roles – which is rare in theatre – and the way it addresses matters such as acting and gender. For a director, it is a balancing act between psychological realism and poetic symbolism: a challenge I willingly accept. You also have to find a way to display the thriller-like plot twists in the story of these two housemaids who are after their mistress’s blood. The play may be seventy years old, but politically very relevant if you consider how many women from poor countries are still performing unskilled labour for wealthy women from the European middle class.’


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