Jun 13, 2013

REVIEW: The Maids | Sydney Theatre

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.

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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16 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Maids | Sydney Theatre

  1. Annie Baker

    Humphrey Bower. in my opinion, you’re being a prat. Why would someone remember a production from the eighties that was directed by Suzanne Chuandy? She’s hardly gone on to do much at all since her time at Anthill, and the production might as well have been a hundred years ago. You’re just playing status games here, and I don’t think any other person would think that it was Lloyd ‘ought’ to know about a production that took place in Melbourne a very long time ago- especially when the director you mention never went on to make any significant mark in the industry that would make Lloyd, or anyone else, think of her in the context of The Maids.

  2. Kate

    “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. ”

    What a sexist comment. The play has actually been done with men many times. In fact, I can’t recall a production that wasn’t.

    And I disagree with many of the comments (and the review). I very much enjoyed the production, it was very engaging and interesting what Andrews did, and the actors where superb. Huppert was dragged down a bit because of the language barrier.
    Then again, I am very familiar with Genet, and the play.

  3. Scribbler

    I thought everything about this production was brilliant. Yes, even the screen… Especially the screen!

    Consuming story, unrelenting performances and intelligent set design/lighting.

    I will hazard to say that those who didn’t like it just didn’t completely understand it.

  4. Maxine Elizabeth

    It took me about three minutes to find a production of this play with an all-male cast.

    The best of your knowledge is the entire world wide web and then some. I would expect a writer of your caliber to have the due humility of a simple Google search rather than defend his or her memory, which, I do not doubt is flagging.

  5. gapot

    When the state puts so much money into STC, the standards of their productions has to be higher than a suburban church hall group. The Maids should never have got to the stage and getting a well known french actor in to justify production is a terrible waste of money. STC needs a new broom so that this waste of money is never repeated.

  6. Andrew Cummings

    A very accurate review. I hated the overdone production and unbelievable story. I wasn’t event that impressed with Cate, but that was probably caused by my total dislike of the play. Very disappointing!

  7. Bronte Institute

    I would go with the drift of the above review and really disagree with the attacks on the messenger.
    Not having read anything about the genesis of the play beforehand, and despite the excellent performances (with a small caveat the understandability of Huppert’s fast delivery, although she was much better in the latter half of the play), a couple of things started to grate.

    The overuse of swearing was just a distraction from the main message. It is most likely this language was never in the original script given when it was written. It does not take long for any audience to get the message re the sisters psycho-sexual relationship, so the quantity does not mean quality.

    It was also hard to get any feel for the class struggle aspects and the reasons for the murderous motives in the play as I was continually diverted by the settings, bright lighting and video playback. There was a lack of intimacy to allow exploration of those themes. The video was useful in some cases but was a distraction for most of the play. Do I look at the screen or at the actors etc?

    The talent on show, was spectacular (Elizabeth Debicki was splendid), and this I believe was the main reason most people were applauding at the end, not necessarily for the play itself.

  8. Lloyd Bradford Syke

    You’ll have to try a lot harder to touch a nerve, Nick. Just good-natured sparring, digger. Self-styled? Yes. What other style can I be? Styled by Shimmin? Actually, I quite like facts. And history. Even herstory. Not so much your story, the way you tell it. I don’t aspire to lofty heights. I’m just a bog ordinary punter, turning up to the theatre and scribbling a few impressions. May I humbly suggest your logic mightn’t quite survive close scrutiny? I think I’m the apotheosis of critics because I suggest you might be a little critic-phobic? That works how, exactly? Pot stirred is shorthand for debate provoked. I happen to think that’s a good thing. A productive thing. A constructive thing. Pity you see fit to lower the tone of such with your pernicious slurs. By the way, what ‘basic facts’ are we talking about? Please, enlighten me.

    Thanks for your contributions to date. I can’t tell you how much I value your opinion. I really can’t. You remind me of the little, old man who rings the tv station to say there’s too much sex in the programme you’re watching. Change the channel, Nick.

  9. Nick Shimmin

    goodness, Lloyd, touched a nerve? i don’t think it’s seeking the wisdom of Solomon to expect a self-styled theatre critic to know Basic Facts about a production of a major play he’s reviewing. but perhaps facts and history don’t count for much in your world. the self-satisfied “pot stirred” seems to demonstrate the lofty heights to which your writing aspires. you provoked a couple of comments on the website! congratulations! job done! you also seem to think you’re the apotheosis of critics if you think my comments about your review somehow mean i have a problem with critics in general. i don’t – just bad lazy ones. but keep on thanking the people who agree with you, Lloyd. thus is a strong critical culture sustained.

  10. Lloyd Bradford Syke

    Nothing like a pot stirred. Humph, sorry if I my cultural memory is short but, I have to admit, at 54, it’s probably not just my cultural memory. Actually, it’s not a question of cultural memory. It’s a question of omnipresence. I can’t be everywhere at once. I’m in Sydney. I can’t cover or be across everything in Sydney, let alone south of the border.Thankyou for your information. I did qualify with ‘to the best of my knowledge’, as I recall. Due humility, I would’ve thought.

    Thanks for your contributions, Jay, Steve and Puss. Seems I’m not sitting out on this limb completely alone.

    Nick, not that I expect you to believe it, of course, but nothing could be further than the truth. I REALLY wanted to love this production. I’d been looking forward to it with bated breath. Truth is, I really want to love every production, as I’d much rather see good-to- great, if not transcendent theatre, than fair-to-poor, or worse. Seems you might have a bit of a preconceived notion yourself, but about critics. Contrary to popular belief, blood runs in our veins.

  11. Nick Shimmin

    this really does read like Llod had made up his mind before he even stepped into the theatre and spent the entire performance making mental notes of what he would criticise. tall poppy syndrome, anyone? nothing flatters the insecure critic as much as picking holes in a successful piece of theatre. but it’s rather strange to qualify almost every gripe, and then admit you don’t know much about Genet (of course it’s been produced with men in the lead roles)

  12. Pusscat

    LBS,thanks for an interesting review.I feel much better now about missing out on a ticket, and, for me, the playwright’s name on that tent would have been the deal-clincher, though I agree with you about Blanchett’s excellence.
    Thanks too for mentioning that my pitiful taxes are funding an organisation with hiring practices about as transparent as a muslin tablecloth. Often wonder if something of the same sort occasioally happens in classical music.

  13. Steve Kemp

    What a brilliant review, it sums up my own feelings about the whole exercise. I left wondering what the point of the play was, it had been a draining experience. We went because of the cast and left wishing we had stayed in the bar at the end of the wharf where we had started the evening. How bad was it? I wished I had stayed home and watched the rugby league.

  14. Jay Rayme

    I understand why there is no interval. Half the audience wouldn’t return.

  15. Humphrey Bower

    Dear Lloyd, as so often in theatre criticism your cultural memory is short and geography provincial. I humbly refer you to a memorable all-male production at Anthill in Melbourne in I think the late 80s or early 90s directed by Suzanne Chaundy and featuring Jacek Koman and Ian Scott as the maids with Ross Williams as Madame which thoroughly revelled in Genet’s exploration of gender as performance (as opposed to Andrews’ apparent, consistent and equally valid focus on class). Best wishes, Humphrey Bower

  16. Graeme Dodd

    Three excellent talents on stage here, however there is not a lot of joy siting in fact trapped (no interval) through this ‘one themed’ ramble of nearly two hours of whinging, moaning animosity towards each other in the predicament of their lives they think they can only escape through murder.
    There is no variation from this one boring ground to death theme.
    Lots of us will rush to see the wonderful Blanchett in anything she does, but the packed audience this day seemed pretty flat at the end, albeit plenty of sitting ovation.
    Was glad to escape even into the rain !

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