The Maids. New York City Center (see Off Broadway). By Jean Genet. Translated by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton. Directed by Andrews. With Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert, Elizabeth Debicki. Running time: 1hr 50mins. No intermission.
The Maids: In brief
A revival of this classic drama by Jean Genet—French master of perversity and power struggles—would normally not equal box-office gold. But this Sydney Theatre Company import features the incomparable Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert. The film stars play domestic servants who dream of the fancy life—and knocking off their wealthy employer. More on Lincoln Center Festival here.
The Maids: Theater review by David Cote
After sitting through the aestheticized lobotomy that was Robert Wilson’s Threepenny Opera at BAM in 2011, I cultivated a rather vivid fantasy of old Bertolt Brecht, risen from the dead and sucking on a cigar, marching straight up the aisle to Wilson and dropping him to his knees with one swift kick to the groin. Now, after the slick, strenuous vapidity of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Maids, I envision Jean Genet paying a visit to City Center. I can’t predict what the crime-fetishizing French author would do to director Benedict Andrews and co-translator Andrew Upton, but it may be a trick he learned in prison.
If you couldn’t afford a ticket, or didn’t have the social clout to snag a comp, I beg you not to worry: All you are missing is a flashy, messily acted and superficial misfire of a modern classic, with a grotesque bit of miscasting (Isabelle Huppert) that hobbles what was already a limp update. Yes, Cate Blanchett acts her heart out and lets her makeup run; yes, Huppert has moments of inspired weirdness; yes, full-length mirrors and furs and live video and acres of flowers suggest an aura of decadent, morbid voyeurism; but it never coheres—or worse, unnerves. Only the most degenerate starfucker would give a pass to this glib and brainless production because OMG! I’m sitting here watching Cate Blanchett—live! Actually, in this case, live is a matter of opinion.
That’s because the performance is mediated through cameras behind mirrors on the periphery of the action, with images projected on a wide screen above the stage. There’s also a camera behind a makeup table center stage. As the actors scowl at or adore their own reflections, their movie-size faces are beamed to the house. Sean Bacon’s video design and Alice Babidge’s ersatz showroom set are perfectly appropriate: Multimedia is the no-brainer approach to Genet in 2014. The playwright and novelist was fascinated by deceptive surfaces, masks behind masks and the slippage between social role and personal quirk. But here, there’s no dramaturgical sense to the way video is used, except in the most banal, illustrative, cinema-lite sense. We get details of shoes or appreciate an artfully framed shot of Blanchett and Huppert. But with the exception of direct address to the camera or mildly amusing film-noir–style editing, it’s window dressing.
This is all the more disappointing because professional revivals of The Maids (1947) are rare. It’s too angry, vicious and weird for our bigger nonprofits to touch. The chamber psychodrama opens with erotic role-playing: Claire (Blanchett) bellows obscenities and commands as the imperious Mistress; meek Solange (Huppert) scurries to fulfill to her every whim. (The adaptation, by Andrews and Upton, substitutes vulgarity for poetry or ideas.) We discover that the maids are sisters (incestuous, no less) who live in the attic and recently framed their Mistress’s lover for a crime. He has just been released from prison for lack of evidence. The desperate siblings hatch a plot to poison their boss by loading her tea with drugs. When their young, capricious Mistress (Debicki, a supermodel dynamo) returns in a fury, we wait tensely to see how things play out.
My summary may be unnecessary for two reasons: First, you don’t really go to Genet for plot, even though his narratives are complex and carefully layered. They contain a lot of repetition and rhapsodic digression, but like all good tragedies, there’s a violent act (past or looming) to focus attention. Second, even the most detailed synopsis won’t help you understand what the hell Isabelle Huppert is saying for nearly two hours. Her accent—thicker than melted Brie—is not mitigated by constant mugging and comic business. You grow weary and irritated trying to pick meaning out of her mumble. Most of the tension and basic sense of her interactions with Blanchett are thus cavalierly tossed away.
Maybe that’s why it seems Blanchett is overcompensating. In previous visits to the New York stage (Uncle Vanya and A Streetcar Named Desire), the Australian star has never shirked from a style of emoting that is, shall we say, vigorous and full-bodied. But the stops have been removed. Acting herself into a sweaty, smeary, emotionally devastated tizzy, Blanchett almost makes you think Genet wrote the piece on commission for Lee Strasberg. Debicki, young and stunning, matches Blanchett for intensity, but smartly pulls back from wallowing utterly in camp hysterics. If an intelligible actor had been cast as Solange, you could almost enjoy the slick glitz.
I applaud Blanchett’s zeal to make world-class theater in her hometown of Sydney and share it abroad, but I also wish her smarter collaborators, ones who don’t confuse surface with depth. The Maids ought to feel dangerous, dirty. It ought to elicit disgust and sympathy for its degraded antiheroes, and muddle what is real and what is a reflection. Genet worked to maintain his outsider status (orphan, thief, homosexual, revolutionary). You can only imagine his disgust at this neutered, big-ticket attraction. It is theoretically possible that two global celebrities could star in a multimillion-dollar production of The Maids for a well-heeled New York audience—and not make the author want to puke in his coffin. But it would take a director of substance: Katie Mitchell, Jay Scheib or Ivo van Hove. Absent that, it’s just movie stars playing dress-up with a master.—Theater review by David Cote
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