Thursday, 3 March 2016

Interview: Zawe Ashton & Laura Carmichael, starring in The Maids at Trafalgar Studios

Zawe Ashton and Laura Carmichael are currently starring alongside Uzo Aduba in The Maids which is running as part of Jamie Lloyd's third West End season at Trafalgar Studios. Jean Genet’s powerful psycho-drama centres around two maids (Ashton & Aduba) as they fantasise about violently murdering their mistress (Carmichael).

Zawe is best known for starring as Vod in Channel 4's Fresh Meat whilst her recent stage credits include Splendour at the Donmar Warehouse and Narrative at the Royal Court. Laura famously played Lady Edith Crawley in all six seasons of Downton Abbey and in 2012 she made her West End debut in Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. On Monday (3rd March) I sat down with Zawe and Laura after the play’s opening night. 

The Maids is a gruelling show to watch as an audience member and I can’t imagine how draining it must be to perform. “It’s completely exhausting” Zawe admitted. “It’s mental, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Jamie Lloyd. I’ve worked with him before on a really high octane reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. By the end of the play I was half naked and drinking blood – so this is actually tame in comparison [laughs]! I couldn’t be more proud of the girls I get to share the stage with.”

She continued, “It has been really hard to unwind. I tend to buy a lot of weird things on eBay on my way home [laughs]. I buy strange things for my dressing room, so this week it has been crochet blankets, pillows and vintage brush holders. I’m expecting a lot more useless parcels!” 

Zawe was first drawn to the piece at a very young age. “I saw the play when I was about fourteen at school; two girls did it for their final drama piece. They couldn’t have been older than sixteen which, as you can imagine, was a very bold statement. I fell in love with the play instantly. I could tell that the play and words were meaningful – it felt like they were speaking to me. 

Carmichael makes her entrance in The Maids

“I used to get very overexcited, but it was the first theatrical experience that made me very quiet and calm. I felt like I had truly been spoken to by the piece. Fast forward to last year and it was suddenly on the table with Jamie and Trafalgar and this new adaptation… thrilled doesn’t cover it!”

The cast of three share electrifying energy on stage, and they all genuinely seem to get along like a house on fire. Laura admitted to me that it was daunting to go into rehearsals but a relief to discover they were all on the same page. “We really do like each other [laughs]” Laura said. “It’s a nice thing! It’s a daunting piece; it’s big and complicated and there was a lot to get though so admitting that we were all a bit nervous was really unifying. Jamie is a genius.”

Zawe agreed, admitting that the girls were “instantly warm and open”. She continued to explain why the offstage relationship with her co-stars is so important, “The environment felt instantly nourishing. I think on a play like this you couldn’t have anything less – you’re in danger if there’s a toxic relationship. 

Ashton in The Maids
“Usually on a film or television set, or working on a different play, you don’t need there to be a generosity offstage. I’m a fan of doing the work and forming your relationships on the stage. But we all hit it off instantly, I loved them from the very beginning and I knew we were going to be able to go on a difficult, emotional journey together and that we were all going to support each other. That’s all you want!”

Laura doesn’t make her first entrance until the show is well underway. When I asked her what goes through her mind each night before she arrives with a bang, Laura explained, “It’s always so funny because my heart is racing – as soon as that curtain goes back it’s like ‘I’m here’. It’s mentally absorbing and I can feel the dark power of that… and then off I go!”

And what does she get up to whilst she’s waiting in the wings? “When I’m offstage I spend a lot of time substage watching Uzo and Zawe on the monitors. I’m so drawn to watching these women! I think chapters of this story are so beautiful and I love watching it. I also love watching the fight section. Both of them really go there. I’m very proud of these two women because for them it really is like a marathon and every night they are smashing it!”

Despite Jamie Lloyd’s work soaring from strength, Laura told me that the director is “really calm” in the rehearsal room. Giggling, she added, “It’s so helpful because we all lost our minds at various points [laughs] whilst trying to figure it out. We couldn’t approach it in a naturalistic way. We had a lot of fun and really did laugh a lot! It’s such an exciting piece to be a part of.”

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

The Maids runs at Trafalgar Studios until Saturday 21st May 2016. 
Please visit for further information and tickets.

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