There’s an ironic if unintended subtext to the Sydney Theatre Company production of Jean Genet’s The Maids being presented in New York as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. This 1947 absurdist classic concerns two domestics plotting to kill their rich, high-society mistress, with one of its primary themes being the class warfare between the haves and have-nots. So it’s endlessly amusing to witness the delight in their schemes exhibited by well-heeled audience members who have paid up to $300 a ticket.
It’s not entirely unwarranted. Starring Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and rising talent Elizabeth Debicki (she played Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby), this glossy, high-concept production offers myriad pleasures, mostly provided by the performers, even if it doesn’t fully succeed in conquering the repetitiveness of this play inspired by a 1933 real-life murder case.
At the play’s beginning, Claire (Blanchett) and her older sister Solange (Huppert) are seen enacting an elaborate fantasy in which the former has assumed the role of their mistress (Debicki). Cavorting in a chic, modern bedroom arrayed with endless flowers and an immense garment rack stuffed with glamorous dresses and furs, the two are clearly engaging in a ritual they have performed countless times before.
But this time they mean business, planning to murder their employer by dosing her tea with sleeping pills. When the mistress finally arrives, her flighty demeanor and condescending attitude toward her underlings seem to well justify their actions.
Director Benedict Andrews accentuates the role-playing aspect of the work by staging it within the confines of a mirrored glass box (courtesy of designer Alice Babidge). Heightening the artificiality of the proceedings is a giant video screen at the rear of the stage featuring close-ups of the performers and various views of the action shot by videographers often plainly visible through the glass walls. At times the screen is filled with giant images of the abode’s accoutrements, including flowers, perfumes and enough views of women’s feet and shoes to gladden the heart of a foot fetishist.
The results can be startlingly illuminating, as with the often unflatteringly harsh close-ups of the older women’s faces and the intimate views of actions, like Claire’s filling the mistress’ teacup with pills, which would otherwise be unseen. But the gimmick is also oddly distancing, with one’s attention inevitably drawn to the screen rather than the live performers.
Blanchett — who previously appeared in New York to great acclaim in Sydney Theatre Company productions of Uncle Vanya, Hedda Gabler and A Streetcar Named Desire — scores yet another triumph with a virtuosic, physically and emotionally revealing turn that galvanizes from first moment to last.
Huppert is more problematic, especially with her thick French accent making at least half of her frantically delivered line readings unintelligible. It doesn’t much matter that she bears no resemblance whatsoever to the actress playing her sibling, since the play is hardly realistic and the physical disparity only makes such jokes as the mistress being unable to tell her maids apart all the funnier. And the actress makes up for her vocal shortcomings with an admirably committed, physically slapstick performance that often features her wildly gesticulating and dancing.
The statuesque, blonde Debicki looks amazingly like a younger version of Blanchett, which only adds resonance to Claire’s resentment of her imperious employer. Playing a character normally presented as a middle-aged dowager, the talented young actress is fearlessly vulgar and funny in her depiction of the mistress’ utter self-absorption.
The new translation by Blanchett’s husband, Andrew Upton, and director Andrews is suitably shocking in its liberal use of profanity and frequently witty in such modern touches as the mistress off-handedly commenting about one of her dresses that “McQueen designed it for me.”
Despite the modern trappings, The Maids doesn’t hold up particularly well, and the production often feels laborious in its nearly two-hour, intermissionless running time. But there’s no denying that in its present incarnation it makes for a truly impressive female star vehicle.
Director: Benedict Andrews
Playwright: Jean Genet
Translation: Benedict Andrews, Andrew Upton
Set and costume designer: Alice Babidge
Lighting designer: Nick Schlieper
Music: Oren Ambarchi
Video designer: Sean Bacon
Sound designer: Luke Smiles
Presented by Lincoln Center Festival, in association with Sydney Theatre Company