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

News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Life and Style
Kissing
life
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

    £17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

    Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Day In a Page

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test