Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Maids by Jean Genet

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert
All photos by Lisa Tomasetti
 The Maids by Jean Genet, trans. by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton.  Directed by Benedict Andrews; designer: Alice Babidge; video designer: Sean Bacon; composer: Oren Ambarchi; lighting designer: Nick Schlieper; sound designer: Luke Smiles.  Sydney Theatre Company, June 4 – July 20, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 12

Watching The Maids is terrifying enough.  Daring to write a review ....

But, like Solange, in the end I have to follow through.

Isabelle Huppert as Solange, Cate Blanchett as Claire in rehearsal
It would be easy to say the performances of Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki go without saying.  But that would only be because their extraordinary command of their voices seemed to come so easily.  It takes a little while to catch the details in Huppert’s French-accented English, but the new translation leaves no doubt about Solange’s meaning.

Huppert creates a delightful, at times almost whimsical character, and therefore all the more tragic in the end.  Blanchett’s Claire was exquisite – a character as demanding of her sister as the Mistress is of Claire. 

I could say these two were as I expected, considering the last performance I saw by Blanchett in Uncle Vanya and Huppert’s films over the years, but Debicki’s Mistress was an equal to her more experienced colleagues’ quality.

The point made – that Claire and Mistress were parallel personalities in different universes – was beautifully, even magically, reinforced in the similarities in movement, voice, physical likeness and moody energy of these two actrices.  For visual and emotional display, the ripping off their stands of the huge array of dresses and furs in an enormous flurry of frustration was a great example.

Elizabeth Debicki as Mistress

When Claire declared that she was exhausted!, there was laughter in recognition – even in sympathy.  But by the time the Mistress had taken us through her wild destructive phase, and Claire demanded her tea of Solange – the tea laced with Nembutal meant for the Mistress whose role Claire had now taken on for real, no longer as a game – we found ourselves equally exhausted.  Not laughing, just applauding.

There is much more than the acting to applaud in this production.  There is the taking of new risks: in bringing a play of the immediate post-war 1940s to a modern Australian audience, and in the originality of the use of live camera and amplified voice.

The latter was a highly successful device (in contrast to many multimedia failures I have witnessed in other shows).  Here the screen above the action brings the details of facial expression, of objects of significance, and oddly humorous angles which enhance and often enlighten – including for those of us, like me, squeezed by massive bookings months ago into the Circle.  The scenes in the almost off-stage bathroom became intriguing with directly observed glimpses of private behaviour selectively showing in wide shot or close-up at the same time.  Our perception – both of what we were literally seeing and what was really going on – became part of the ‘game’.  Here was a technical device being used to elucidate the concept of different universes in parallel.

Technology, which was not available or probably even thought of by Genet in 1947, has today brought us to the understanding of ideas like ‘quantum leap’ in physics and how there may be copies or versions of ourselves existing in different universes at the same time, but never accessible from one to another.

This is, for me at least, what brought this play into the modern era.  In Genet’s day, and in Europe especially, the basically feudal tradition of servants as trusted retainers, almost family of the autocratic rich, was still close enough for The Maids to be immediately relevant (and why I wrote actrices rather than ‘actressess’).  Even decades later, friends of mine were employed by ultra-rich Europeans as chef and housekeeper.  They came back disgusted after a year, with stories like being sent to Harrods to pick up up a dress, worth only £10,000, or on Majorca (or maybe Capri) having to prepare banquets daily which were hardly touched, but then not being allowed to pass perfectly good food on to local poverty stricken villagers.  It must be thrown away, they were ordered.

Perhaps the final straw for this couple was when a ‘radical’ daughter, of a similar age to them, visited the family.  The daughter talked to the couple on an equal basis, but was then instructed by her parents not to talk to the servants, or she would be banished.  What she did, I don’t know, but my friends came back to our parallel universe in Australia.

But, of course, Genet’s maids had nowhere else to go, no other employment (except, one supposes, in another placement just as bad as the last) – in other words no freedom from their low position in the status power game.  Maybe, a lesson might be learnt by a certain Australian mining family whose Mistress has suggested paying workers $2 a day, and whose children (let alone any maids we do not get to hear about) are struggling to keep up their position. 

But that kind of family’s story is perhaps more relevant in my following review of another French play – Racine’s Phèdre, which I saw in the same extraordinary day in Sydney.

It may not be easy, considering the bookings, but if you can get to see The Maids the trip will be well worth the effort.

Cate Blanchett (Claire) and Isabelle Huppert (Solange) in performance

Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett

Elizabeth Debicki as Mistress
The Maids set in performance (upstage bathroom blacked out at this point), bird's-eye view on screen
showing Cate Blanchett (Claire) and Isabelle Huppert as Solange wearing rubber gloves


Solange (Isabelle Huppert) watches from outside the apartment (shown on screen)
as Claire (Cate Blanchett) is left holding the poisoned tea that Mistress has refused to drink