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Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo (madame, centre) with her four maids: Jeungsook Yoo, Regina Crowley, Sunhee Kim, Bernie Cronin

Wealth collides with debt in new theatrical production

Questions of power, wealth and politics are explored in a production which focuses on the global responses to and effects of austerity today. The world premiere of ‘Playing The Maids’ is being performed by an international ensemble of award-winning artists from Wales, Ireland, Korea and Singapore in venues around Wales, starting at Chapter Arts, Cardiff from 19 February to 6 March.

The production is inspired by Jean Genet’s 1947 classic, ‘The Maids’ a dark portrayal of working class discontent with a focus on two dispossessed sister-maids work for a Parisian Madame.  In this theatrical collaboration, two pairs of sister-maids, (Irish and Koren), a Chinese ‘Madame’, a sound artist, and a cellist weave together music, text and movement to explore globalisation and its impact. 

The production uses English, Chinese, Korean and Gaelic (with sur-titles) to bring together an eclectic mix of theatre companies and theatrical expertise. 

Current and former staff and students from the University of Exeter’s Drama department are integral to the production developed by the Welsh based Llanarth Group, which specialises in training of actors from all cultures. Phillip Zarrilli, director of the play and Emeritus Professor of Performance Practice at the University of Exeter collaborated with GAITKRASH from Ireland, Theatre P’yut from Korea and with Singaporean performer Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo.  

Professor Zarrilli said:“We used Genet’s play as a beginning point for responding in new ways to the powerful issues that underlie the play. Some of the alternative ways of seeing and responding to the issues of status, power, and control in ‘Playing The Maids’ include the extreme austerity prompted by the failure of the big banks during the economic downturn and the striking shift in wealth between EU/UK austerity contrasted with the continuing accumulation of wealth in parts of East Asia. It also focuses the ways in which tremendous social pressure are manifest in Asia today for women to physically conform to a certain idealised notion of ‘beauty.’”

Four of the performers in the show have trained with Professor Zarrilli and are either MFA or PhD University of Exeter alumni; Bernadette Cronin, Sunhee Kim, Jeungsook Yoo, and Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo.

Dr Adrian Curtin, a lecturer in Drama at Exeter and co-creator and the cellist in ‘Playing The Maids’ commented on the links with the University. He said:“I’m really pleased to be part of this unique collaboration, which has numerous connections to the University of Exeter. The production accords with the Drama department’s commitment to internationalisation, (inter) cultural investigation, and practice-led research. This venture has allowed me to explore my research interests which include music in performance, modernist theatre and sound. I am also looking forward to sharing the work with audiences in Wales and participating in a series of educational workshops.”

The process of discovering parallels between the different cultures working in collaboration for the production of ‘playing the maids’ was fascinating, according to award-winning playwright Kaite O’Reilly, the dramaturg (artistic contributor/advisor) for the show and Honorary Fellow (University of Exeter). She said:“The more we moved away from the text and into country and culture-specific material, the more apt the themes of Genet’s play became. So many aspects of the original hold great resonance for our times.”

Date: 18 February 2015

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