There's a buzz around the Citizens Theatre these days.
Recently installed artistic director Dominic Hill is exhibiting an impressive talent for invoking the theatre's brilliant past (especially under the reign of Giles Havergal and his collaborators, Robert David MacDonald and Philip Prowse) in a way that, rather than being merely nostalgic, is making for exciting 21st-century theatre.
This is particularly clear with the first production of 2013. Not only does the staging of Jean Genet's avant-garde classic The Maids nod to Genets from the Citz's past (The Maids in 1971, The Balcony in 1982), but it also brings director/designer Stewart Laing (who trained in design under Prowse) back to his theatrical home.
For his play – written in the 1940s and inspired by the notorious case of the Papin sisters who carried out scandalous murders in Le Mans in 1933 – Genet stipulated that the three characters (maids Solange and Claire, and their Mistress) be played by men. Laing has cast recent Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduates Samuel Keefe (The Mistress) and Ross Mann (Claire), and current final-year acting student Scott Reid (Solange). How, I wonder when I meet the young actors at the Gorbals playhouse, have they found rehearsals of this famously complex play?
"There are different realms of reality and fantasy," says Reid. "These two worlds collide. It took some time for us to establish which world we were in at any given time."
"I really didn't know what to make of it at first," admits Keefe. "However, it became really clear to me on the first day of rehearsals. Stewart's got such a clear vision for the piece."
For his part, Mann has been impressed by Laing's nuanced approach to the play. He says the director has ushered the cast away from the "melodramatic" acting style the script seemed to imply.
Fitting into female roles has proved to be less of an issue than the actors might have thought. "We're not trying to physically embody women," Keefe explains. "It's more subtle than that. As actors, all three of us can connect to aspects of femininity – I think that's why we were picked at audition."
Mann agrees: "It's much more about the energy we bring to the roles than being a woman or a man."
If the actors have had to adjust to the aesthetic radicalism of Genet's script, they have also had to combine their acting skills with their pre-existing musical talents. Laing has brought in rock music (by the likes of Metallica, the Velvet Underground and David Bowie), which the actors perform live on guitars. They've been working on the music with Scott Paterson (formerly of Sons And Daughters).
"Scott's been a sort of puppeteer," says Reid, "shaping things to fit what Stewart has in mind. For example, with One [by Metallica], we don't play any of the vocal melody, it's just the guitars. The effect is really visceral."
And the overall effect of the production, which the actors say Laing has designed in "contemporary high fashion"?
"The stakes are high," Reid comments. "I think, in any play, if the stakes are high, people find a way to connect to it." However, if the drama does its part for the audience, it also requires its audience to give something back. "I think the audience have to be prepared to get on the train, so to speak. If they don't go with it, I think it's going to be a really difficult two hours."
The Maids is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 17 to February 2. For more information, visit: www.citz.co.uk