Hilda @ Hampstead Theatre, London

cast list
Stella Gonet
Sarah Cattle
Bo Poraj

directed by
Rachel Kavanaugh
When depicted on film or on stage, nannies tend to fall into two distinct categories: stern but ultimately loveable wonder-women of the Mary Poppins variety or sinister, potential poachers of husbands and children’s affections. But Hilda, the titular character in Marie NDiaye’s 1999 drama, here receiving its UK premiere, is neither of these things. In fact, in this odd, unlikely play, she barely figures at all.

NDiaye cites Genet’s The Maids as a key influence, but Hilda more closely resembles a kind of warped reverse version of glossy psycho-nanny thriller The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. So instead of creepy Rebecca DeMornay infiltrating a nice middle-class household, we are presented with well-to-do Mrs Lemarchand (Stella Gonet) who convinces Hilda to come and work for her family and then gradually takes over her life.

It begins with tweaks to Hilda’s hair and clothing but rapidly escalates. She forces Hilda to shower, to be “as clean as we are,” and prevents her from returning home to her husband through emotional, and more conventional, blackmail. In the end Hilda is lost, overwhelmed, eaten-up by her predatory employer. It’s a premise that on the surface sounds promising and unsettling, but as a drama it fails on pretty much every level.

Hilda was originally conceived as a radio play and it never quite shakes off these roots. Things aren’t helped by, what one assumes is, a stilted translation – NDiaye’s play has gathered awards so something has surely been lost in the transition from French to English. If that isn’t the case one really has to wonder about the state of French theatre – after all the feather-light Heroes and Fabrice Roger-Lacan’s Members Only have hardly set the West End alight.

If Hilda is aiming for satire and social comment, it misses its mark. There’s nothing said here that wasn’t said better in the early days of Ab Fab when Edina would ramble on about how it was perfectly possible “to be a socialist and have staff, sweetie.” Rachel Kavanaugh’s chilly and stylised production seems to be aiming for a more dreamlike effect, but this doesn’t really work either, it just saps the play of any real tension or genuine unease; though Hilda runs for just over 70 minutes it feels achingly, inexcusably repetitive.

The play is riddled with inconsistencies. From the outset Mrs Lemarchand is clearly so in need of a valium or twelve that no one in their right mind would have anything to do with her. She insults Hilda’s husband Franck, then strokes the sleeve of his jacket and asks for a kiss. She makes ludicrous demands and talks about Hilda’s naked body in such a sexual, possessive manner that it’s, unintentionally, amusing.

Stella Gonet is a capable actor but there’s little she can do to redeem this. Her performance is near-enough a monologue – and had it remained as such, the ramblings of one questionably sane woman, it may have fared a little better. By allowing her character to interact with others it brings the sheer implausibility of the narrative to the fore. The person we never see is, of course, Hilda – she remains throughout, much talked about, but appropriately invisible.

This has been a distinctly under-par season for Hampstead: a series of ambitious but ultimately unsatisfactory productions. Hilda not only continues this pattern but sees things take a sharp downturn. The play unfolds on Peter McKintosh’s stark, simple set, dominated by a heavy-handedly symbolic revolving glass cube (Mrs Lemarchand’s house/ Hilda’s cell). Gonet spends a good portion of the evening confined inside this thing, looking for a way out – for the audience it was easy to sympathise.

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