Few independent theatre companies are as prolific in Adelaide as Famous Last Words. James Watson and Emelia Williams produced three full-length dramas last year, and the company does not shy away from challenging material or controversial themes. This is certainly true with their first play this year, a 2013 adaptation by Adelaide-born director Benedict Andrews and playwright Andrew Upton of Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids.

This production is hosted at the inviting Goodwood Theatres, in its intimate Studio venue. The audience is taken through the deconstructed living room of a caricatured member of the elite, Mistress (Kate Owen), replete with outrageous dresses, furs, coats, and a central chaise lounge. The maids, Solange (Virginia Blackwell) and Claire (Emelia Williams), play clapping games until the doors are closed and their legendarily torturous role-playing commences.

Solange and Claire torment and deride each other through role-playing as Mistress, telling increasingly absurd stories of how they each managed to ruin their comically elaborate plots to murder or discredit their masters by being too distracted, self-involved, or cowardly. At a certain point, Mistress arrives home, and the play shatters, blurring the line between fantasy and reality.

The play itself is quite static in action, and therefore it is incumbent on the production team to mine the text for light and shade. However, the heavy emotional undercurrents of the piece feel somewhat laboured for the first half of this performance, particularly in such a small space. Far more delight in the dangerous play-fantasies of Solange and Claire could have been explored; instead, we feel like this oppressive predicament will only become more traumatic for the maids as the 110-minute production progresses.

Watson, in his program notes, mentions delving into the work of Sartre, Lacan and Hegel through this production; two of these are known as notoriously difficult continental philosophers to comprehend. Perhaps aspects of the production ­– such as the near accosting of the audience, or the wall-long dance mirror opposite – are meant to allude to these philosophers’ concepts, but they largely feel underdeveloped as theatrical choices.

Owen fulfils an imposing silent role prior to appearing as Mistress, operating various props, and gradually donning her costume. An “invisible” stagehand dressed in black is found frequently in Kabuki theatre, but in this instance, it feels as if her presence is meant as thematic. When Owen does finally enter, she brings a welcome ease and emotional complexity to Mistress and makes us briefly doubt the maids’ caricatures of her.

The Maids is a worthy effort to stage one of the less overtly comedic works of Theatre of the Absurd. However, perhaps more time could have been spent interrogating the major dramaturgical shifts of the piece, the opportunities for dark humour, and more light and shade in performance.

Famous Last Words is presenting The Maids at Goodwood Theatre & Studios until April 13.

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