It's taken a while for Stewart Laing to get Jean Genet's play, The Maids, onstage. Given that the director, Tony award winning designer and founder of Untitled Projects has made what might be dubbed the Penguin Modern Classics canon of French authors something of a specialism over the past few years, this comes as quite a surprise. At last, Laing's vision of Genet's power-play between two servants who act out their fantasy of killing their mistress is brought to the Citizens Theatre's main stage where Genet's work hasn't been seen since the 1980s. That was when Philip Prowse directed and designed Robert David Macdonald's translations of three Genet plays, The Balcony, The Blacks and The Screens.
The Maids itself hasn't appeared in the Gorbals since Lindsay Kemp directed Tim Curry in the play back in 1971. Kemp was a long time admirer of Genet, and also produced Flowers, a seminal dance-theatre interpretation of Genet's novel, Our Lady of the Flowers. The only recent sighting of The Maids at all in Scotland was a mini production by Pauline Goldsmith at the Tron's Changing House space in 2011. So given his extensive back catalogue, both at the Citz and with French work, what kept Laing so long in bringing The Maids back to what might just be its spiritual home?
“I've wanted to do it for years,” he admits, “but when Giles, David and Philip were running the Citz, Philip wouldn't let me do it, because he said it was a play that too many students did. He said it had had too much exposure.”
Genet drew The Maids from a real life murder case involving two sisters who bludgeoned their mistress and her daughter to death before being found in bed with a blood-soaked hammer. The case scandalised 1930s France, and captured the headlines even more when intellectuals including Simone de Beauvoir claimed that the sisters were victims of a bourgeoisie who treated their servants with contempt.
In some respects this echoed how Genet himself had been championed by the likes of Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre when he was threatened with a life sentence in prison following numerous convictions for petty thievery. All of which cemented Genet's status and reputation as the ultimate literary outsider.
This was no more evident than in a famous BBC TV interview recorded in 1985, a year before Genet's death. The hour-long programme was led by playwright Nigel Williams, who would go on to adapt Genet's play, Deathwatch, for the stage. What followed saw an initially monosyllabic Genet turn the tables on Williams and his crew, questioning the false constructs of such a set-up in what turned out to be a final, wilfully singular performance.
“I've been watching it a lot recently, and I'm tempted to use it in some way,” Laing muses. “I think there's something about Jean Genet that he sees a metaphor for the world in any situation. He saw that interview as a metaphor for the whole of society, and so started to say 'I don't understand why I have to sit here and you have to sit there, why don't we swap places?', and that was his entire take on society. The person in prison is as interesting, if not more interesting, than the person in government living the ideal of a middle class life.
In keeping with Genet's provocative instructions for the play, Laing has cast three very young male actors in all three female roles.
“In the 1940s the divisions between genders was much more clearly proscribed,” Laing points out, “ whereas now, I can see it in nineteen and twenty year olds that gender is a much more fluid thing in terms of how they behave. So it's a particularly interesting moment to go back and look at that, and to look at what drag, for want of a better word, is actually about, and what it means now in a trans-gender world to do drag. There's a political way of doing the play, which some people see as a kind of revolutionary emancipation of the maids, but for me it's more about gender and how reality and fantasy blurs between these three people onstage. The theatricality of that situation is really interesting.”
Laing's interest in the French canon was evident from when he directed live artist and some-time Michael Clark foil, Leigh Bowery, in Copi's The Homosexual at Tramway. At Dundee Rep Laing directed Jean Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles, while with Untitled, An Argument About Sex was Laing and writer Pamela Carter's response to Marivaux's La Dispute. An earlier collaboration between Laing and Carter, Slope, looked at the messy lives of poets Verlaine and Rimbaud, while the soon to be revived The Salon Project, in which Laing dressed the entire audience in period costume for an intellectual exchange of their own making, was loosely derived from Marcel Proust.
“I've done so many French plays,” Laing muses. “I sat down the other day and made a list of everything I'd directed, and about half of it is to do with French culture. It's something that I don't quite understand, because I don't speak French, and I don't spend a lot of time there, but it's something that I keep on coming back to, and that confuses me. It's maybe something to do with me growing up in East Kilbride, and my first experience of theatre being coming to the Citz with the school. I think there was something about that which opened my eyes to the fact that there was a bigger world out there. It expanded your parameters.”
Genet, and The Maids in particular, it seems, has always trickled into popular culture. Peter Zadek, who directed the first UK production in French at the ICA in London, enlisted sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi as set designer. It was Lindsay Kemp, of course, who taught mime to the then fledgling pop singer David Bowie, whose 1972 single, The Jean Genie, drew a portrait of a Warhollian character he christened with what he admitted was a clumsy pun on Genet's name. As with The Maids, Bowie made gender-bending a creative stock in trade.
More recently, while Katie Mitchell took a naturalistic approach at the Young Vic, Neil Bartlett directed a production in a Brighton hotel, in which the performers would toss a coin each day to decide who which part they'd play. This year will see a major production of The Maids in Sydney, starring Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert.
“I find that reassuring,” Laing says. “Genet's plays aren't on the shelves in Waterstones, so he's getting lost. I think he's become quite unfashionable, so for me, that's as good a reason as any to be doing his plays.”
The Maids, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 17th-February 2nd
The Herald, January 8th 2013