CATE BLANCHETT & ELIZABETH DEBICKI ON SEX AND MURDER
Cate Blanchett and rising star Elizabeth Debicki are tackling Jean Genet’s tale of sadism, sex and murder, writes Sharon Verghis
CATE Blanchett and Elizabeth Debicki are eating lunch in a private room overlooking a bright blue slice of Sydney’s Walsh Bay. Sitting side by side, they’re a compelling study in similarities. There are the elongated mannequin’s limbs, the extravagant cheekbones, the long necks and wide mouths, and a certain milky blonde luminosity. Also, there is the same opaque reserve and low, precise enunciation.
Twenty or so years separate them, but in the filtered late autumn light they could well be sisters close in age. With small, neat movements, they dip spoons into identical bowls of bright orange pumpkin soup, sitting with their backs resolutely turned to the sun, shielding their identical pale skins.
Interestingly enough, the pair will make their debut in a play about sisters this month, but their characters are yoked not by ties of blood but employment.
In the Sydney Theatre Company’s new production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, Debicki, 22, suddenly a ubiquitous presence on the public radar courtesy of her turn as golfer Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, plays the vapid, fickle Madame of a wealthy bourgeois household, with Blanchett, 44, as her scheming, murderous servant Claire. Joining them will be French stage and screen legend Isabelle Huppert, 60, as Claire’s malevolent older sister Solange, with director Benedict Andrews overseeing a contemporary staging (think surveillance cameras and webcams) of a new translation he’s co-written with Andrew Upton, Blanchett’s husband and artistic director of the STC.
It’s only the second week of rehearsals but already there’s an air of exhaustion. The wiry, intense Andrews is a famously rigorous director (Blanchett, who is reuniting with him for the third time after The War of the Roses and Gross und Klein, has described his rehearsal rooms as ‘‘ muscular — brutal, even’’). Genet’s slim, dark beast of a text is also a notoriously slippery one, defying easy theatrical solutions. Rehearsals so far — ‘‘ exciting, but terrifying’’, Blanchett confides — have been following a typical arc. The first two weeks have been about making slow inroads into Genet’s duplicitous world of mirrors and masks and familiarising themselves with the new translation (Huppert has been accompanying this with a line-by-line scrutiny of a French edition of the original text). The tension will build, typically, in the third week, which is traditionally when ‘‘ it will all fall apart’’, Blanchett quips.
Initially, at least, there’s a slightly prickly reserve to the Oscar-winning actress: she tells me tartly to ‘‘ just make everything up’’ when I express concern that the background noise — a shrill chainsaw, boat engines — could affect tape quality. From time to time those cat’s eyes narrow alarmingly into slits, as if she’s been mentally parsing my sentences and spotted an egregious mistake. But then an earthy, saltytongued Cate emerges, one who playfully sticks her fingers in her ears as Debicki sings her praises, who leaps up to do a funny walk worthy of John Cleese (Andrews has lamented how underappreciated her comic talents are), who says candidly she’s both relieved and saddened to be leaving the post of co-director of the STC (‘‘I was getting sick of the sound of my own voice’’), and who, at one point, lets fly with an elegantly enunciated c-word. She’s referring here to Genet’s blunt written instructions to actresses in The Maids to leash their sexuality and not ‘‘ put their c . . . s on the table’’ because ‘‘ individual eroticism’’ debases performances in the theatre. Blanchett says gleefully she doesn’t want to tempt the wrath of Genet’s ghost. ‘‘ I don’t think I’ll be putting my c . . . on the table,’’ she declaims grandly as Debicki snickers.
Perched like an elegant stork on a low sofa, the younger actress, the Paris-born daughter of dancers, listens in deferential silence as Blanchett outlines the many challenges of Genet’s ‘‘ exquisite, poisoned pearl of a play’’, as it’s been described. The Maids tells the tale of two sisters, Claire and Solange, who impersonate each other and their mistress in increasingly sadistic and erotic fantasies that culminate in their employer’s murder.
Genet based his first major play on a gruesome 1933 double murder in Le Mans, France, when a wealthy French woman and her daughter were slaughtered by their servants, two sisters, Christine and Lea Papin. The case scandalised France, but the Papin sisters would go on to find a strange public fame, hailed by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre as revolutionaries rising against the bourgeoisie. The murders have spawned many interpretations, from Christopher Miles’s 1974 film with Glenda Jackson and Susannah York, and Swedish composer Peter Bengtson’s 1994 opera, to Claude Chabrol’s 1995 film La Ceremonie, based on Ruth Rendell’s novel A Judgement in Stone (which, interestingly, featured a Cesar Awardwinning performance by Huppert).
Genet, whom Jean Cocteau called France’s ‘‘ Black Prince of letters’’, plunged headfirst into the murky, incestuous world of the Papins, producing a richly layered, hallucinatory play that exposed everything from the humiliation of society’s outsiders to the fluidity of identity and sexuality, to ‘‘ the corrupting effect of power and status’’, as Upton puts it. Sartre called it a ‘‘ Black Mass’’ that ‘‘ aimed to strike at the root of the apparent’’. It was published in French as Les Bonnes by L’Arbalete in Lyons in 1947, and made its theatrical debut in April 1947 at the Theatre de l’Athenee in Paris, directed by Louis Jouvet with dramaturgical guidance from Cocteau. For most of its initial run of 92 performances, it was hissed and booed by post-war audiences, which saw it as an ugly affront to their aspirations and values; critics dubbed it ‘‘ crude’’ and ‘‘ unhealthy’’.
The Maids is now considered a classic of the modernist repertory, a perfect conduit for the rage of its creator — the son of a prostitute, a convicted thief who in his writing attempted to create what Sartre called ‘‘ a black ethic, with precepts and rules, pitiless constraints, a Jansenism of evil’’. This slim work of unflinching, mostly psychological brutality is a blistering early example of Genet’s creative nihilism. ‘‘ You are hideous,’’ Claire-as-Madame hisses. ‘‘ Lean forward and look at yourself in my shoes. Do you think I find it pleasant to know that my foot is shrouded by the veils of your saliva? By the mists of your swamps?’’ The three women at its centre are locked in a tight, writhing knot: the drama lies in the anticipation of that moment of rupture, Blanchett