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Theatre: Genet-ically modified

"If I were to have a play put on in which women had roles, I would demand that these roles be performed by adolescent boys, and I would bring this to the attention of the spectators by means of a placard which would remain nailed to the right or left of the set during the entire performance."

I'm not too convinced by the notion of signposting but cross-casting can pay considerable dividends. That quote comes from Jean Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers but points to his most famous play, The Maids, which returns to the stage this week. According to Sartre, although the murderesses were originally performed by women, that was a concession to the director. Back then, one suspects that men playing women would have had the same kind of threatening frisson (to men) that women playing men has today. No-one bats an eyelid at men in frocks now, but women on stage as Lear? Or Richard III? An outrage. Genet's idea of men playing Claire and Solange was not merely jobs for the boys. As Sartre put it, Genet wanted "to strike at the root of the apparent. [He] wishes this feminine stuff itself to become an appearance, the result of a make-believe."

This latest production of The Maids strikes even deeper. The piece is being reconceived - as an opera. Milhaud got there first in 1961 and there's another version going around Sweden, but this is the first version in English.

It grew out of a desire to build a bridge between opera and theatre. Composer John Lunn had written for the tenor Nigel Robson and discussions turned to opera and Genet's The Balcony at which point Robson's wife, director Olivia Fuchs, had the inspired idea of The Maids, casting Nigel Robson and his brother Christopher (above), one of Britain's leading countertenors. Two-and-a-half years of intense collaboration later, it's here.

Producer Jean Nicholson is very clear about the dramatic reasons for turning text into music-drama. "This is definitely not a play with added music," she says firmly. "It's true opera in that the music drives the drama. They are very intimately related because the play's structure and language are already very operatic."

Given its partial derivation from the ritual of the Catholic Mass, this is no surprise. What is unusual is Lunn's scoring, for piano, percussion, harp, violin, two cellos, double bass, flute, bass clarinet and saxophone, which has a strong Latin-American feel to it. "It's a conscious move," explains Nicholson. "European church music of the Catholic tradition partnered by African rhythms of the slave tradition... the dirtying of the religious is one of Genet's themes."

Nicholson believes The Maids to be a great psychological thriller, but concedes that over-reverential productions often mistake ritual for "ritually slow". Or else the fantasy game-playing by the two insolent servants becomes far too hysterical, far too soon.

Music theatre (and opera in particular) is often regarded as a blunt instrument, but Fuchs and Lunn believe you can manipulate time more subtly with music. As Nicholson puts it, "You can apply brakes to the hysteria because music slows things up in certain places. You can get more variation, find greater subtlety than is very often the case in staged productions. Also, musical adaptation can help the audience appreciate that there are so many different levels operating at the same time."

'The Maids' is at the Lyric Hammersmith (0181-741 2311) from 5 June