Benedict Andrews’ production of Jean Genet’s 1947 play The Maids is visually stunning. With Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert as the title characters, this unmissable Lincoln Center Festival/Sydney Theatre Company offering shimmers with high-fashion surfaces: a bounty of expensive blooms, a transparent-box set, a rack of boutique-ready clothing. But Andrews and his performers are not afraid to explore the cheap vulgarity in this drama about rebellion against authority. The knockabout physical comedy and reliance on coarse sex jokes are the very stuff of farce.
The Maids gives us two domestics, Claire and Solange, role-playing the murder of their Mistress. The play has always had legions of detractors, and this one-hour-and-45 minute, interval-less evening will probably not upend their opinions. As with all Genet’s work for the theatre, the overall message is boomingly obvious: if you make a play highly theatrical, then its audience will become more attuned to the roles we are always playing in everyday life.
Genet delights in making the characters’ play-acting highly self-conscious. The maids Claire (portrayed by Blanchett) and Solange (portrayed by Huppert) plot their crime in the language of S&M. Huppert’s accent is loopy and hard-to-grasp, and her impish scampering round the stage make the proceedings a bit too Noises Off. All her French-maid outfit lacks is a feather duster.
Andrews heightens the synthetic aspect by filming the actors – the tall, beautiful Elizabeth Debicki is the Mistress – and broadcasting them in real-time on a large screen at stage rear. The strategy may underscore the maids’ worry of being watched, and may heighten the intimacy of emotional nuance through close-up, but it is also distracting. If I wanted to spend two hours watching Claire and Solange on a screen, I’d opt for the 1974 movie version starring Susannah York and Glenda Jackson.
Like Jackson, Blanchett brings a grand Elizabethan bearing to The Maids. She has shown before that her stage performances can be extreme. As Hedda Gabler she was maddeningly mannered but her Blanche DuBois was lit by a more realistic lantern. Her Claire does not eschew camp intonations. Yet the artificiality is tinged with deadly serious grievance. And Blanchett’s delivery of Genet’s expletive-strewn language – the free-wheeling adaptation is by Andrews and Andrew Upton – is amusing.