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Posts Tagged ‘Zawe Ashton’

Jean Genet’s fame is surprising given his limited output (five books and five plays). His plays are rarely revived here and this 1947 play has been given a rather radical makeover by Benedict Andrews & Andrew Upton. It originated at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2013 (with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert as the maids!) but now has two black actresses as the maids, giving it another twist in Jamie Lloyd’s visceral production.

The setting has moved to the US. The time is contemporary. Mistress is a rich woman, perhaps a celebrity (think Kardashian!). Her two black maids are sisters and they have a bizarre ritual where one dresses as Mistress and they act out scenes between her and a maid. The conclusion is meant to be Mistress’ murder, though it never seems to get that far. Mistress’ husband is in prison following a tip-off to the police, which appears to have been made by the maids, though he is released on bail on the day / night of the action.

The relocation to the US with black maids works really well. The problem with the play is that the maids’ ritual takes a whole hour before Mistress arrives home, then we have a 30 minute scene involving all three, then she’s off again and we continue with the maids. At almost two hours with no break it’s way overlong (particularly sitting on seats that are amongst London’s most uncomfortable).

Designer Soutra Gilmour has created a clever structure, like a giant four poster bed made of wood with ornate gold decorations. The trouble is, the four large posts ruin the sightlines and from our top price third row side seats we were often listening to a character who we couldn’t see. Jon Clark’s lighting is just as striking as the design and Ben & Max Ringham’s sound design adds a suitably spooky feel. There are a lot of paper petals!

I was hugely impressed by Uzo Aduba as elder sister Solange, in her UK debut, particularly in the final scene where she was mesmerising. Zawe Ashton is much more physical and frenetic as Claire, perhaps a bit too frenetic, but it’s a virtuoso performance nonetheless. In her last West End outing, Laura Carmichael was heckled (perhaps unintentionally) on opening night by a theatre director Knight. Well, she proves her stage acting prowess here with an excellent performance as Mistress.

I much admired the production and the performances, but it’s not a great play and the length, sightlines and discomfort made it worse. Still, good to see such stuff in the West End .

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I’m glad I’m not an actor with a part in this Abi Morgan play. I wouldn’t get through a single performance without losing my way, let alone a whole run. It’s structure is clever but must be a nightmare for Sinead Cusack, Genevieve O’Reilly, Michelle Fairley, and Zawe Ashton, so lets start with gold stars for the actors.

We’re in some sort of European dictatorship which is about to be overthrown by the people. In a large, fancy but tasteless room the president’s wife Micheleine is meeting western photojournalist Kathryn, who has come to photograph her husband. She has an interpreter of dubious competence and motivation, Gilma (who’s also a kleptomaniac!). Her oldest friend Genevieve arrives, summoned by Micheleine.

The same scene is played out multiple times, but each one is different in some respect, more differences as we progress through the 95 minutes of the play. We learn more about the true nature of the relationship between Micheleine and Genevieve, where Gilma stands on the conflict and something, but not a lot, about Kathryn. They break the fourth wall frequently and Kathryn doesn’t always understand what the others are saying, or vice versa.

It’s all very clever, but I felt the focus on structure, though not impacting the characterisations, does rob the play of story; there just isn’t enough of it. In addition to faultless acting, particularly impressive from Sinead Cusack as Micheleine and Zawe Ashton as Gilma, there’s a fine set by Peter McKintosh and impeccable direction by Robert Hastie.

I admired it and it impressed me, but the play left me wanting more.

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