So hard to get good servants these days

THEATRE

There Is a pale green kitchen clock that sits on the dressing table in the Donmar Warehouse's production of Jean Genet's The Maids. It ticks quietly and insistently throughout the play. Two maids enter their mistress's elegant bedroom (tick-tick, tick-tick) and one of them spreads gladioli and mimosa around the floor (tick-tick, tick-tick). The other takes off her uniform and dresses up in the mistress's clothes (tick-tick, tick-tick). They rehearse the murder of their mistress (tick- tick, tick-tick). Their mistress arrives unexpectedly (tick-tick, tick- tick). They put drops of valerian in her herbal tea (tick-tick, tick- tick). Their mistress leaves without taking a sip (tick-tick, tick-tick). One of the girls drinks the tea and dies (tick-tick, tick-tick). The other remains (tick-tick, tick-tick). And that's it. I think I heard every second pass, in John Crowley's inexorable production of this one-act - but two- hour - play.

In a programme note, translator David Rudkin says that "audiences of an essentially Anglo-Saxon post-Protestant culture are inevitably going to have problems in perceiving Genet as a dramatist." He has a point. Genet knew the story of the Papin sisters, who murdered the mother and daughter for whom they worked in a provincial town in the 1930s. They tore out their victims' eyes, then washed and went to sleep in the same bed, saying, "Now we've made a fine mess of it." The empirical minds of Anglo-Saxon post-Protestants might prefer to see an Zola-like account of this double murder: detailing character, motive, and social milieu. The juicy bits, that is. Genet concerns us instead with something more continental and Catholic: ritual, eroticism, rhetoric and paradox.

Is this more theatrical? The who, what, where, why, and how are conspicuously absent. It's hard to believe these two sisters - played by Kerry Fox and Niamh Cusack - are even distantly related: physically, facially and vocally they share nothing. While Cusack's accent, for instance, is plainly Irish, Fox's accent still retains traces of her native New Zealand ("ending" is "indin"). Nor do they behave like sisters. What is lacking is an intense sibling interdependence, the private shorthand of rapid flare-ups, the overlapping cues, the picking up on each other's rhythms and intonations: some emotional consanguinity, that is - a sixth sense between people who know each other that well. I imagine Genet intended the audience to be caught up by the dangerous undercurrents of desire that propels the role- playing and murder. In this well-mannered, unflamboyant production, the dark, secret urges feel insipid. Josette Simon plays the mistress, or "Our Lady" - the religious connotations are reiterated with nudging frequency - with predictable hauteur, theatrically giving her handbag to Fox without even looking in her direction. A black actress playing the role brings its own thematic baggage. (Let's leave aside "blind-casting": you can't not notice in a 20th-century play about economic servitude that the mistress of the house is black.) But if this piece of casting appears a neat reversal, then what does it mean? Kerry Fox is best, as you might expect from her film work (An Angel at My Table, Shallow Grave) when doing least. Her wide face watches, observes, reacts, with a steady natural authority. It's the momentum of the big speeches that eludes her. Cusack is the opposite: skinnier and busier, screwing up her face with animation, she works extremely hard, which in its own way fails to draw us into the character's subconscious urges. For all the activity and speech-making, The Maids is a hermetic piece that appears to know what it is about, and what it has to tell us, from the first few seconds when the maids push through the door. What follows is as regulated as the kitchen clock.

In the English Touring Theatre's production of The Seagull, which I caught halfway through the tour at Richmond, Cheryl Campbell plays the well-known actress Madame Arkadina with the feisty elan of a Parisian barmaid about to slam a foaming mug on the counter. She skips in the air, chokes on her breakfast at the mention of giving her son money, or sprawls over the sofa as she paws at her lover. Duncan Bell plays Trigorin, the novelist who knows he will never be as good as Turgenev, as an epicene parsonical figure who arrives in velvet jacket and cane and goes on rather too much about what it is like to be a writer. It's a puzzle why Campbell should find him a "magnificent man". She looks as if she might prefer a fling with the workman Yakov Colin Haigh), who wittily shoots her a glance while he is shifting the cases and she's claiming to be "exhausted". In Stephen Unwin's serviceable production, there is a tortured, self-pitying Konstantin (Mark Bazeley), an attractively frank Masha (Sarah-Jane Holm) telling her ponderous schoolmaster husband Medvedenko (Paul Slack) that he wished she's "never clapped eyes" on him. If this Seagull seems slow and gloomy early on, it builds, with the return of Joanna Roth's urgent, bedraggled Nina, to a strong conclusion. Only at Richmond could the half minute of silence that follows Konstantin's suicide be filled by the sound of Concorde flying past.

This year's Kenneth Tynan award for taking the F-word into virgin territory goes to Mark Ravenhill, whose first play Shopping and Fucking, premiered at the Royal Court last September, now reaches Shaftesbury Ave- nue. If any area already knows about the transactional nature of sex, then it is Soho. The West End suits Ravenhill's play in other ways too. Distance lends detachment. In the tiny Theatre Upstairs, we watched anal sex, masturbation, and someone going down on another's backside and surfacing with blood on his face - from a mere 10 feet away. The actions spoke louder than the words. Seen at the Gielgud from the safety of the stalls the overheated and slightly self-regarding tone of the first production has gone. It doesn't scream "zeitgeist" at you quite so loudly. Somewhere on tour director Max Stafford-Clark and his company have discovered the play is a good deal funnier. The new cast bring a sprightlier insouciance to the nastiness, particularly the plaintive Pearce Quigley (so good, too, in Rat in the Skull) as Robbie, who shares out 300 Es at a club and then gets beaten up. Ravenhill's extravagant wit, cruel dialogue and eye for extreme, painful situations works better in long shot than close- up. Second time round I bought it more.

'The Maids': Donmar, WC2 (0171 369 1732). 'The Seagull': Liverpool Playhouse, (0151 709 8363). 'Shopping and Fucking': Gielgud, W1 (0171 494 5040).

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