Isabelle Huppert, Cate Blanchett and Elizabeth Debicki in The Maids (Pic: Lisa Tomasetti)

Oh, Benedict, Benedict. You’ve defiled The Maids. Well, with a little bit of help from Andrew Upton, as co-translator. Then again, there’s only so much damage even you can do. I’m being flippant, of course. Nonetheless, the return of Benedict Andrews from no man’s land (or was it Iceland?) seems to me less than triumphant, on this evidence.

What was, of course, anticipated and touted as one of the highlights of Sydney’s 2013 theatre calendar failed to engage, on the whole. Not for want of trying. Maybe trying, too hard, was the problem.

A colleague of mine spoke recently of the “transparency” of Eamon Flack’s direction of Angels In America, an ambitious undertaking if ever there was one. He was referring to the fact Flack seems to feel no need to impose his stamp, or ego, on his work, other than by doing his job as well as he possibly can. There are no conceits, affectations or eccentricities superimposed on the work which shout the director’s name. No overt branding strategies. Andrews, if you ask me, could learn from this. Oh sure, I admire his chutzpah, coming back from the dead and resurrecting his toolbox, but the implements are hardly shiny or new anymore. They’re looking more than a little tarnished.

Striking as it is on first entering (largely by dint of dozens of faux flowers), Alice Babidge’s set looks like a chillingly sterile funeral parlour, rather than a wealthy woman’s apartment. Well, somewhere between a mortician’s and Madonna’s bedroom. There’s an elongated, superbly art directed rack of sumptuous clothes at the back of the stage which afford that association. It’s very compressed, too, this set, with precious little of the vertical dimension being exploited. Yes, there’s a point to the undertaking (if you’ll pardon the pun): The Maids, after all, is loosely based on the true story of the Papin sisters, who cold-bloodedly murdered their employer, in Le Mans, in 1933; but it’s too clinical and there are too many hard surfaces, an impression exacerbated by the wholesale use of mirrored panels. Again, yes, granted, this has a thematic relationship, since The Maids is very much concerned with selfhood and self-delusion, the myriad of personae that can inhabit but one human being. Still and all, I found it rather overwhelming, distracting; imposing on Genet’s plot and central ideas in a rather heavyhanded fashion, even if the rationale was to have us gaze fixedly upon them.

Nick Schlieper’s lighting, too, was for the most part starkly illuminating: LED-level brightness where incandescence would’ve been, I would’ve thought, de rigueur; as this play, surely, is more about illuminating shadows. After all, Genet ‘liked the darkness, even as a child’.

There’s no denying the luminosity of the stars. Catherine Elise Blanchett. Isabelle Huppert. And Great Gatsby principal, Elizabeth Debicki. Who wouldn’t be there? And, it seemed, almost everyone who’s anyone was, on opening night. But Cate and Isabelle are playing sisters. Cate has been directed, apparently, to apply a very proper, almost English way of speaking when her mistress is present and a coarser, broader, Aussie accent in private. Isabelle, however, is (inevitably, I suppose) stuck in her heavy, French onion soupy accent, which only but thickens when she’s speaking quickly or heat is applied to a scene. She’s a great actor, brimming with confidence, charisma and comedic skill, in particular, but much of her speech was entirely lost on me; it’s a good thing she was so physically expressive. She might as well have performed in French and, if Benedict was as anxious to be, or appear, ‘out there’, as I suppose, the whole play could’ve been in French.

In other words, I’d say, beyond the marketing muscle a name such as Huppert’s on the marquee lends, she is miscast, as Solange. Rapport born of an apres-show dinner (with Andrews, Blanchett and Huppert at table) while touring Gross und Klein in Europe seems to have been the audition, an admission Upton makes in his program notes which, while refreshingly candid, seems ill-advised in light of tongues wagging about town with respect to a publicly-funded arts organisation never countenancing open auditions. But nepotism in theatre is a big subject, for another day.

Presumably, Andrews is alluding to the differing roles we all play (if not psychosis) in having Cate put on one face (and voice) for her taskmistress and quite another for her sister. But again, what may be underpinned by a sound rationale doesn’t always work, in practice. Cate, of course, as Claire, outdoes herself, as always. I’ve said it before. And I’ll say it again. She is, for mine, the Sarah Bernhardt of our time and place. Her versatility knows no bounds, on stage, nor screen, gross or klein. From Elizabeth 1 to Bob Dylan; Ophelia to Blanche DuBois; Kate Hepburn to Hedda Gabler. Her every role materially underscores my contention.

Like Huppert, she’s always in consummate control and, even when flowers won’t go back in a vase, she improvises (I take it) seamlessly. It appears she subscribes to the Larry Olivier school, at least insofar as doing the very best one can with what one’s got; no matter the role. Cate, however, has arguably made far better decisions than Larry, as to scripts and productions. To say her resume reads very respectably exhibits considerable reserve and this latest role, needless to say, can do her no harm, even if the context for her performance has question marks hovering menacingly over it. Cate endows the young maid multidimensionally, sliding effortlessly from reticence to rage; contempt to tender affection. It’s Mr Andrews we must look to should we harbour any doubts about the way in which Claire is depicted.

Debicki, at twenty-two, as the mistress, isn’t outclassed by the maids. Astonishingly. She may well be a Cate Blanchett in waiting. Of course, some suspension of disbelief is required as regards relative ages. But, otherwise, Debicki does a delicious turn as the cruel, narcissistic prize bitch.

A lot of my aggravation, frustration and disappointment with this production goes back to the translation. I’m no Genet scholar (apparently, Benedict is, to an extent), but this interpretation seems overwritten, with too much textual and especially dramatic emphasis on largely superfluous expletives. It’s not as if we haven’t heard the word cunt before, or that it’s repetition is likely to deeply shock us, in the sense that seems intended. It is shocking though, when it suffices for something that might be more pithily expressed. The density of the text presents the aforementioned problems for Huppert and, by corollary, the audience, but problems for the play overall, which is exhausting for the fact it’s practically always talking.

But perhaps the biggest offence is the large screen and live editing of video. Even Spielberg wouldn’t take this on as, from a technical standpoint, the chances of the actors hitting precise marks, even if in place, especially in such a physically active play, are slim and, if they don’t, one ends up with hit-and-miss shots. On the up side, a few presented closeups which were revealing, not least of the actors’ finesse. If it had been left at this, there might’ve been an argument for it. But, as it is, it proved an intrusive gimmick. I’ve seen a number of multimedia productions that get it right, but this didn’t look like those. They’ve been candid about deploying cameras, whereas Andrews is clandestine.

What we end up with is a large screen hanging over a theatrical stage. It looks like Hillsong, a stadium Stones show, or a symposium on widgets. Half the time, I don’t know whether I should be watching Days Of Our Lives, above the set, or the flesh-and-bones actors, in it. It’s not radical (well, maybe it is). It’s not reinvention. It’s just rude.

If a director, Andrews or otherwise, wants to stamp a production of The Maids with something ‘radical’ and memorable, it might be best to go back to square one. Genet, a true radical, originally wanted men to play all the roles. To the best of my knowledge, it’s never happened. Then, we would’ve had something attention-getting that was relative to the work itself; instead of some things that are attention-getting that appear relative only to raising the reputation, or notoriety, of the director, not necessarily through the vehicle of the work and probably at its expense.

We still got a strong sense of the sexual ambiguities: incestuous stolen kisses and allusions to mutual masturbation; furtive touching. But male players would engender thought about oppression of women and socialisation, which would complement the play’s obvious concerns with class, money, power and authority. In the last regard, Andrews’ casting decisions succeed and prove inspired: having the young, beautiful, willowy mistress place the stiletto heel of deemed superiority sharply on the back of the not quite as young, but equally beautiful and willowy servant, in Claire, points vividly to the arbitrariness of who and what is ascribed attractive in a vastly inequitable social contract.

I applaud Andrews for his determination to experiment, but I question his motives. It seems he has a noisy propensity for ‘me, me, me!’ self-aggrandisement. Were he a little wiser, he’d realise the best way of attracting attention and holding it is to make the production famous. The rest will follow and the reverse rarely works, in any positive sense. I recall a better indie production at one of Sydney’s hole-in-the-wall theatres, not long ago, that probably would’ve cost, all in, less than Cate, Isabelle and Benedict’s fateful dinner.

But none of this matters. Mine is a voice in the wilderness. As I understand it, the season has sold out and the overseas tour already booked. It’s the names on the tent that matter. Not what’s inside it.

The details: The Maids plays the Sydney Theatre Company until July 20. Tickets at the venue website.

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Peter Fray
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