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Lily Sykes, Director of ‘The Maids’, on transgressing boundaries through a queer world

Based on the true story of the murderous duo the Papin sisters, Jean Genet infamous ‘The Maids’ is a radical modern classic.

Well ahead of its time, ‘The Maids’ explodes with contemporary ideas about class conflict, sexual identity, and political outcasts. In the title roles are Jake Fairbrother as Claire and Luke Mullins at Solange. Directed by Lily Sykes, you can catch ‘The Maids’ at HOME in Manchester from Friday 16 Nov to December 1 (tickets here).

Below, Sykes talks about the play, the idea of gender as performance., and how creativity can access parts of yourself that may not fit into traditional norms.


‘The Maids’ is a play about erotic, death, violence, power – components of life that are essential to what we are as human beings and yet things that we often choose to ignore because they complicate this thing we live in called “reality”.

It’s about transgressing the boundaries and the laws of the world that defines you to attain something deeper, more meaningful, more “authentic”. By Reality, I mean something defined by society and those around you, whereas Authenticity is what you dream or you imagine, how you would like to be, your creative self, your secret self.

The world of ‘The Maids’ is a queer world – a world of play, of fantasy, of desires and dreams which one might not be able to express in everyday life, a world which rejects binary thinking. Jean Genet said in his annotations to ‘The Maids’: “I go to the theatre to see myself…as I do not dare to be but as I know I am.”

The Maids’ life is based on taboo and transgression.

As domestic servants, their lives are strictly defined, but they have a fantasy world which they enter in order to give reign to those elements of their person which have no place in their “society.” – like the fantasy world shared by the girls in ‘Heavenly Creatures’ or Catherine Deneuve’s fantasies in ‘Belle du Jour’.

In primitive societies, animal sacrifice fulfilled this role – through the sacrifice members of the society were able to engage with darker forces of violence and bloodlust inside them, which outlet enabled them to live according to those societies’ laws the rest of the time. Remnants of this survive in our culture, for example in the Catholic belief in Trans-substantiation or the excessive and lavish Mardi Gras celebrations which still take place across the world, and were traditionally supposed to mark the start of Lent, the six weeks of penitence before Easter.

This process also finds parallels in a creative act. Creativity is about accessing parts of yourself which don’t have a place in the “real” world (which is why many creative people are also troubled) and to create you often have to create a set of conditions around you in which these parts can be let loose and your censoring ego goes away.

It’s a way of exploring all your possible selves, all those selves which life in “Reality” doesn’t cater for.

Themes of reflection, imitation and mutual dependence play a big role in ‘The Maids’, so although there are three voices, one can also perceive them as fluid and conflicting parts of the same person.

With all these elements that interest us in the play in mind, the casting of men has been essential. Not only to show the characters as physical representations of possible selves of the writer, Jean Genet, but also to create a space in which the idea of pretence, of fantasy is visible from the word go.

We want to invite the audience into a world which, by disobeying the logic of our own world, reveals authentic things about it.

Gender in this production becomes a physical manifestation just one of many elements of the social conditioning which can imprison people in strictly defined roles.

People cling to binaries like Gender and Power because they give them a sense of structure; in the queer world of ‘The Maids’ we play with and subvert these ideas, and examine what happens if we abandon them altogether and give ourselves over completely to erotic, violence and death.

Lily Sykes directs ‘The Maids’– by Jean Genet in a translation by Martin Crimp – at HOME in Manchester from Friday 16 Nov to December 1. Tickets available here: homemcr.org/the-maids

Written by Lily Sykes

Lily Sykes makes her HOME directorial debut in 'The Maids'. Sykes has directed at the Schauspiel Frankfurt, Deutsches Theater Berlin, the Berliner Ensemble, the Schauspiel Frankfurt, the Schauspielhaus Zürich. 'The Maids' is at HOME in Manchester from Friday 16 Nov to December 1 - book tickets here.

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