To say that the Sydney Theater Company’s extravagant, admittedly over-the-top production of Jean Genet’s rather intimate 1947 psychodrama The Maids – now being presented at City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival – is not your grandfather’s Genet, is both completely true and utterly beside the point.
From the minute patrons sit down and take a gander at Alice Babidge’s sleek, white set dominated by a clothing rack stuffed to the gills with up-to-the minute designer fashion, not to mention the large video screen on top of the stage (soon to be filled by Sean Bacon’s eye-catching if often distracting projections), it’s clear that audiences should be ready for a modern take on this 20th-century classic. And admittedly, by the end of these intermission-less two hours, not everything director and co-adaptor Benedict Andrews (who co-authored the decidedly au courant, profanity-filled translation with Andrew Upton) has put on the stage makes complete sense – but little of it is less than fascinating.
Okay, the show’s “plot” is the same as it ever was: Two unhappy French maids – and semi-incestuous sisters – Claire (Cate Blanchett) and Solange (Isabelle Huppert) spend their evenings enacting the same ritual, in which they fantasize murdering their haughty mistress. In Genet’s original play, the Mistress is an older woman, but here she’s played by the young, insanely tall and quite stunning Elizabeth Debicki (who bears a striking resemblance to the young Blanchett). While it may be hard to imagine, Debicki more than holds her own opposite her more established co-stars. Her Mistress is a monster of a trophy wife – a woman who seems incapable of any real feeling for anyone, or at least resigned to not acknowledging that there may be some form of real love in her heart.
Moreover, while many productions have used Genet’s suggestion to cast two men as the sisters, Andrews has come up with something that’s almost more perverse. Blanchett and Huppert don’t look remotely alike – they barely seem to speak the same language (Huppert’s English is spoken with a French accent so thick some people will find her less-than-intelligible) – and their acting styles are almost diametrically opposite. Yet, it’s a testament to their great skill that we believe these two very different women are not just devoted siblings, but also desperate victims of their society’s class structure. (That said, the moments when Blanchett’s Claire is supposedly physically afraid of the smaller Huppert are just beyond any suspension of disbelief.)
While some of Genet’s great language is lost by Huppert, she manages to summon Solange’s anger at her position with a violent ferocity when called for. Most often, though, the actress relishes in displaying a broad and often hilarious physicality that forces you to pay attention to her. And that isn’t easy for anyone sharing a stage with Blanchett, who once more uses every arrow of her finely honed acting technique in her vast arsenal to create her singular version of Claire. It hardly matters how aware we are that Blanchett has planned out every vocal modulation, shake of the hand or toss of the hair in advance when the execution is this flawless.
The same, of course, cannot be said of the maids’ master plan, which ends in tragedy rather than triumph. As for this production, purists may see it as its own form of tragedy, but those seeking a truly memorable theatrical experience will be humming the victory march on the way out that they snared a ticket to this engagement.