The starry line-up of Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Maids is one of the most glittering pieces of casting seen on the Sydney stage for a while.
The vehicle that brings them together, meanwhile, is a dark, challenging, existential play.
Written in 1947 by French playwright Jean Genet, The Maids was inspired by a notorious, real-life case in 1933 when two sisters working as servants in Le Mans brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter. Discovered naked in bed together with the murder weapons, they immediately confessed.
In the play, two maids play a sadistic, sexualised, ritual game in which they act out the roles of servant and dominating employer and fantasise about killing their mistress. Reality and fantasy slip and slide in a play with layer upon layer of role-playing.
On this particular day, Claire (Blanchett) is playing the role of the mistress, while her older sister Solange (Huppert) plays Claire. An alarm clock from the kitchen sits on the bedside table to warn them of the impending arrival of their mistress (Debicki).
Director Benedict Andrews uses a muscular, new translation by himself and Andrew Upton, which feels contemporary yet true to the play, while the glossy, stylised production features several of his directorial signatures: glass walls and cameras feeding live footage onto a large screen.
Designer Alice Babidge transforms the stage into an opulent boudoir with a long rack of elegant couture, a bed, dressing table and hundreds of flowers in vases all over the room, with fake flowers underlining the theme of artifice.
The walls act as mirrors but through them we glimpse camera operators. The video (designed by Sean Bacon) gives us close-ups of the actors and brief scenes from a bathroom behind the main room but also picks out details like a knocked-over vase or rubber gloves lying on the bed. At times it’s distracting but overall it works, enhancing the intimacy of the play in the large theatre and the sense of voyeurism.
Andrews does a great job of mining the dark humour in the play and genuinely jolts you at times (think spit, profanities and toilet scenes).
The three actors respond to his vision with deeply committed, heightened performances.
Blanchett is remarkable, mercurial and fearless as she swans around histrionically in the guise of the mistress, then slumps back into Claire’s slutty, bitter anger and despair at her dead-end life. Holding nothing back, she seems genuinely spent at the curtain call.
The petite Huppert is more wry, playful and laissez-faire as Solange in a highly physical performance that sees her doing pull-ups from the clothes rack, pumping her legs on the bed and moving in a jerky, girlish fashion. However, her strong French accent has you straining to understand her at times, particularly when she speaks quickly. In a wordy play where the language and what they say is so important, it’s problematic.
Though both Blanchett and Huppert are individually terrific, the relationship between the two maids as co-dependent sisters doesn’t feel entirely believable.
In the smaller role of the mistress, the statuesque Debicki (a 22-year old newcomer fresh from playing Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby) holds her own. Flouncing in like a celebrity used to the glare of the paparazzi flashbulbs, she captures the character’s skittish, careless, preening, self-regarding behaviour as she gushes over the maids one minute and barely knows one from the other the next.
The mistress is play-acting herself: playing at being the authoritative mistress as well as the devoted, suffering wife whose husband has been arrested. Debicki feels very young for the role and pushes close to farce as the mistress dashes off to see her husband but it’s a mesmerising performance by an actor we will doubtless be seeing a great deal more of.
But for all the passion on stage, I watched the production dispassionately, almost forensically without being sucked into the play. I felt totally disconnected from it. Perhaps that’s what Andrews wants; Genet certainly doesn’t invite an emotional response but I suspect it’s partly the theatre too, which feels very large for such an intimate piece.
Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating production of an intriguing play with some very fine acting.
Sydney Theatre until July 20
An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 16