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Review: CASA Festival – The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs is a Great Play and the Desire to Succeed, at Arcola theatre

25 July, 2019 — By Leo Garib

NO one loves a drama about life below stairs more than the Brits. Think Downton Abbey and endless BBC period dramas. This play, however, is a million miles from a corsets-and-cleavage piece about a pair of maids.

Staged in the cramped basement of the Arcola, Dalston, it is immersive theatre where the audience literally inhabits the cramped space the maids call home.

Sitting within touching distance of the actors – and the walls – is the best way to experience the pair’s oppression, closeness and ingenuity.

Based on Jean Genet’s The Maids, this multi-award-winning Mexican play takes the French classic a brilliant step further. Rather than plotting the murder of their mistress, as Genet’s Parisian maids, the modern-day Latin servants plan to escape their humdrum life by putting together a smash-hit theatre production.

It’s sure to make them stars and get them away from the drudgery and humiliation of a life of cooking, washing, dressing and abuse at the hands of their layabout bourgeois mistress.

And from the moment the lights go up on this tight two-hander, it is impossible not to fall in love with them.

It explodes into life as they rehearse their play – a ruthless send-up of their mistress – at machine-gun speed. Their insights are biting and wonderfully earthy.
Then the camaraderie as they lavish praise on each other for their rehearsal. Then a sudden spat as their exchange turns seamlessly spiteful, before they cook and eat together in a couple of hilarious food-fun moments.

Suddenly there is more shocking violence before the most powerful and heartrending scenes of all.

Spoiler alert: after a half-hour emotional roller-coaster, the climax comes when they bathe each other in total, beautiful silence. No words are needed, only caresses. An utterance would have broken the spell. The audience was in rapture. Nude, almost comically crushed together in the too-small steel tub, graceful and as inseparable as identical twins.

With everything enacted in such a tight space there is no room for a grand set. But cheek-by-jowl, the play’s humour, insight and pathos envelops the room.

It has been performed in basements and attics around the world, and is one of Latin America’s finest.

Actors Diana Magallón and Maricarmen Ruíz have won awards in Cuba and Sarajevo. With nearly 300 performances under their belt, they masterfully inhabit the two maids – loving, laughing, rowing, spinning ideas, falling out of friendship and back again, just as two working women might if thrown together in a hateful job and a basement below stairs.

Two years ago, the play was a sensation when performed at the Southwark Playhouse theatre, in the Elephant and Castle. “But this basement is the proper atmosphere,” said director Damián Cervantes. “It is authentic down here.”

The audience gave a five-minute ovation. Several were moved to tears. A play about the hidden brilliance and shining humanity of those below stairs could hardly be more apposite for these times of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and a political world cut-and-pasted from a period drama.

The CASA Festival continues until 27 July at the Arcola theatre, Dalston, the Rich Mix, Shoreditch, and Rio cinema, Dalston.

The Only Thing a Great Actress Needs is a Great Play and the Desire to Succeed at the Arcola theatre, Dalston until 26 July.
The CASA Festival ends on 27 July
Arcola Theatre: 020 7503 1646


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