An effective concept and solid performances surprise in Swifties: an unlikely modernisation of a classic at Theatre N16.
Forgive my skepticism but when I read the blurb of this production, my hopes were not high. My first question was: ‘why? WHY does the world need a re-reading of Genet’s masterpiece ‘The Maids’ with Taylor Swift at its centre’?’
However, I was pleasantly surprised. The action is translated from a situation in which two maids enact imagined sadomasochistic fantasies on their Mistress, to a hotel room where two Taylor fans (‘Swifties’) play out a fantasy in which they meet their idol. Their seemingly light-hearted role play becomes increasingly dark, revealing disturbing truths about both characters.
Tom Stenton’s script follows the peaks and troughs of Genet’s original faithfully; so much so that, at times, it seems a little laboured. The middle of the play lags a little and some of the dialogue is meandering and unnecessary. However, for the most part, the narrative works astonishingly well in this new context, and the parallels between Nina and Yasmin and the play’s original anti-heroines are well-observed and highly effective.
The two performers, Isabella Niloufar (Yasmin) and Tanya Cubric (Nina), are both undeniable talents. Cubric’s impersonation of a somewhat schizophrenic Swift (or ‘Tay Tay’) goes from cutesy to passive aggressive to what can only be described as full-on-bitch-from-hell. She captures Swift’s mannerisms to a tee, and gets the piece off to an energetic and genuinely funny start. However, when we see the ‘real’ Nina, her role is somewhat less developed than her counterpart, which makes for an anti-climatic ending. Niloufar, on the other hand, presents an exceptionally well-developed character throughout, simultaneously malicious, vulnerable and manic. It comes as no surprise that she has just been cast as Salome in the National’s forthcoming production, and I feel fortunate to have seen her captivating performance in the intimate space of N16.
Director Luke Davies makes the most of a minute performance space and a non-existent design budget. The oscillating emotional energy and status shifts are signs of a very well-directed piece. For the most part, this keeps the pace swift (sorry, couldn’t resist) but there are a few sluggish moments in the middle. The momentum is rescued as the play reaches its climax.
Now, of course, it would be a sin to call a play ‘Swifties’ without featuring some of Tay Tay’s hits. I was surprised at how well this technique worked to a number of effects, although I would argue that the length of the excerpts is misjudged. Full verses and choruses are incorporated when a couple of lines would have provided the same impact (although I doubt Swifties would agree).
This production could have very easily presented a sweeping comment on millennials, social media and celebrities. However, it achieves far more, exploring the identities of two troubled young women who finding themselves lost, puzzled, questioning life and ultimately driven to madness in the circus of 21st century celebrity culture.