Cate Blanchett and ris­ing star El­iz­a­beth De­bicki are tack­ling Jean Genet’s tale of sadism, sex and mur­der, writes Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

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