Jean Genet has a bit of previous at the Citizens Theatre.
The ultimate outsider artist of the French avant-garde was a favourite during the directorial heyday of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald. Little wonder, then, that this production of Genet's elusive (and allusive) drama The Maids, about two servants planning to murder their mistress, has excited considerable anticipation.
The show's director and designer, Stewart Laing, is a one-time Prowse protégé. A theatrical risk taker, his oeuvre contains both memorable successes (such as the recent Salon Project) and interesting failures. Sad to say, this Genet belongs to the latter.
From the outset, the production is painfully self-conscious in its avant-gardism. The play's already complex structure is chopped to accommodate, first, the projection of a Genet TV interview on to a curtain (complete with an actor speaking the unreadable subtitles) and, during a later set change, a question and answer session with Laing.
Like many of Laing's directorial interventions, these are redundant gestures that smell of misconceived experiments in the rehearsal room.
The much trailed live rock music (performed by the youthful, all-male cast) is played only in the first half, and is accompanied by incoherent video projections, from Iraq War footage to quasi-abstract scenes of Warholian decadence. These are not so much an accompaniment to a sinister, psycho-sexual atmosphere, as an attempt to compensate for its absence.
No fault lies with the actors (Samuel Keefe, Ross Mann and Scott Reid), who give strong and brave performances; Keefe, in particular, is revelatory, as his naked Mistress wanders, careless and anxious, out of a steamy bathroom. Indeed, the piece is at its best when the actors are least encumbered by Laing's erratic dramaturgy, and most at liberty to dwell upon the psychological and violent implications of the play.
Unlike the actors, Laing's minimalist, stripped-back set is shambolic and uncertain in its nakedness. His big, set-piece designs (from an impressive black box containing the bathroom to an ineffective easyHotel room) are as variable and unconvincing as his production.
If the Citz's Maids is a bold experiment gone wrong, the Edinburgh Lyceum's latest presentation, Shelagh Delaney's kitchen sink classic A Taste Of Honey, could almost be said to be at the opposite end of the spectrum. When it was first staged, in 1958, it was shocking in its Mancunian proletarianism and its radical challenge to powerful prejudices. Now, however, the play has settled into a comfortable dotage.
The more naturalistic a drama is, the more it is tied to its time, and so Delaney's smart and gutsy play about white teenager Jo (a deceptively vulnerable Rebecca Ryan), pregnant through a brief love affair with a black sailor (played warmly by Adrian Decosta), has faded with the years.
Director Tony Cownie attempts to enliven the piece by lightening up the often lacerating relationship between Jo and her alcoholically negligent, licentious mother, Helen (a blithe-yet-brittle Lucy Black). It's an intriguing device, which emphasises a certain emotional subtlety in the play. However, the production loses more in bleak cruelty than it gains in redemptive nuance.
As Janet Bird's depressingly accurate lodging house set revolves, Charlie Ryan gives a beautifully sympathetic performance as Geoffrey (the gay friend who assists Jo through her pregnancy), while Keith Fleming does a monstrously comic turn as Helen's latest scumbag boyfriend, Peter.