THE PLAY REMAINS STRIKINGLY MODERN IN ITS PREOCCUPATIONS
says, and in the puzzling, shifting power dynamic between the three women. Who is stronger? Who is victim and who is prey?
‘‘ Anything can be a woman: a flower, an animal, an inkwell,’’ said Sartre in his introduction to The Maids. It was Sartre who pushed the possibly apocryphal view that Genet wanted the maids to be played by men. Blanchett screws up her face: she’s in the apocryphal camp. Gender, roles, identities — nothing is anchored in Genet’s world, she says: in rapid fashion the women swap identities in a circular pattern Sartre called ‘‘ whirligigs’’. ‘‘ I think the tricky thing and the exciting thing and the dangerous thing about performing this play is that Genet looks at reality as a hall of mirrors,’’ Blanchett says. With its masks and sinister games, Andrews says, ‘‘ it’s not only a very intense study of private behaviour but a study of theatrical playing and processes’’.
For Blanchett, the play remains strikingly modern in its preoccupations, from the psychology of sadism to social hierarchies: Genet was ‘‘ unbelievably transgressive’’, not just in his depiction of crime but in the power dynamics of ‘‘ loving one’s captor and in detesting what you love’’. Then there is its unnerving exposure of female violence, something that still shocks us, Upton says: we find it so singular that we immortalise it in art, in everything from Euripides’ Medea to the 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, based on the New Zealand schoolgirl murderers. Debicki, shivering, says she’s more disconcerted by ‘‘ the eroticism of their hatred’’ than any actual violence.
The notoriously prescriptive Genet estate has given its blessing to Andrews and Upton’s translation, which they worked on separately, collaborating via Skype. They say their text, which they affectionately term ‘‘ the bastard’’, is faithful to the original, with only minor changes to language and imagery.
Any true creative liberties are embedded in the staging. The Maids has proved richly fertile ground for many a director. There have been all-black, all-male, all-drag queen and even allAboriginal versions, settings ranging from prison cells to 19th-century colonial India, and stage designs featuring everything from Metallica and Bowie soundtracks to kabuki and Vietnam War footage (a recent version by Argentinian director Pablo Messiez even referenced the global economic crisis).
The STC’s version, set in the present day and featuring surveillance technology (apt in an era of ‘‘ video bloggers and the endless recording of ourselves’’, says Blanchett) may prove to be a model of restraint in comparison.
The Maids stands or falls on the strength of the dynamics between the three lead characters. Like the women in Genet’s play, who exist only in relationship to each other like a hall of endlessly reflecting mirrors, there’s an intriguing symmetry at play among the real women behind these roles. Debicki, who graduated from the Victorian College of Arts in 2010, has been hailed as ‘‘ the next Cate Blanchett’’ (Australian director Stephan Elliott, who cast her in his film A Few Best Men, says he hasn’t seen anybody ‘‘ in a decade that truly has that possibility’’). Blanchett, in turn, has been compared with Huppert: they share a similar fugitive beauty, a penchant for creative risk-taking and flair for stage as well as film work (in a 2007 article in The Australian, film critic Lynden Barber said both were fine actresses but only Huppert, with her ‘‘ invisible’’ technique, seemed consistently to ‘‘ leave the stage behind when on camera’’). And in an interview with Huppert that ran in Review last year, writer Emma-Kate Symons wrote that ‘‘ one senses Huppert has perhaps already identified this younger actress [Blanchett] as a rather fascinatingly similar version of herself’’. It creates a ‘‘ wonderful meta-layer’’ in an already dizzyingly layered play, says an intrigued Andrews.
Blanchett is unstinting in her praise for the legendary Huppert — ‘‘ very playful but fearless as a performer, and of ferocious intelligence’’ — but is equally glowing about Debicki, citing her ‘‘ supreme intelligence’’ and openness to ideas. She pooh-poohs Debicki’s confessions of being awestruck in her and Huppert’s company and is playfully teasing when Debicki, in turn, is asked what she admires about the older actress (eventually she pops out diplomatically so the embarrassed Debicki can expound at length). In Blanchett’s absence, Debicki cites her ‘‘ utter fearlessness’’, work ethic and mental and ‘‘ body’’ intelligence: ‘‘ It’s an ability to totally dissolve into a role or a line or a moment.’’
Blanchett’s non-judgmental attitude has also allowed Debicki to work on what she calls one of her biggest flaws, an ‘‘ enormous’’ selfconsciousness. ‘‘ The scariest thing is when you suddenly have to get up and walk and talk at the same time, and I always feel like I lose my ability to do these two things at once.’’
Blanchett, on her return to the room, nods sympathetically: drama school training can inadvertently leach the naturalness out of you, she believes. ‘‘ When you first walk into drama school, you walk like this’’ — the 1992 National Institute of Dramatic Art graduate leaps up and strolls across the room, arms swinging, cool as cucumber. ‘‘ Then you walk out of drama school like this’’ — she hunches her back and lurches stiffly across the room. ‘‘ The reason they take people is they think they’ve got good bones, good instincts, they’ve got something unique, and then in order to make sure that’s not going to leave you in a year, you have to break it apart and see what’s good and what habits to get rid of that keep getting in the way of those good instincts, and build up a technique. But in order to do [that] you have to really become hyper-aware of yourself, from the tips of your hair to your fingernails. And that can be exhausting.’’
Debicki agrees. ‘‘ And all everyone tells you is that they can see you being self-conscious, so you become even more self-conscious.’’ Sounds hellish, I say, and they both nod ruefully at the same time.
Upton is struck by their similarities, ‘‘ physically, but also in terms of their resources, intellectual and creative. In this time we’re living in Australia, particularly in acting, there’s a sort of readiness to engage in the world which is very exciting and I think Cate is symptomatic of that. And so is Elizabeth. So that might be something we’re seeing apart from their physical similarities, this creative capacity to be frank and engaged.’’
Talk turns to the acting profession. Blanchett has two pieces of advice for Debicki: follow your nose and ‘‘ be careful who you take advice from’’. She’s pleased Debicki and her peers are immersing themselves in local theatre. ‘‘ Look, why wouldn’t you want to go and make umpteen films internationally, what artist worth their salt doesn’t want to travel? But the community here is the one that will keep you growing and keep you from atrophying as an actor.’’ Luhrmann, she adds, didn’t make The Great Gatsby here out of altruism: there’s a quality to Australian creativity, born out of our relationship to the land, distance and each other, she says, ‘‘ which is so fascinating. Baz could make his films anywhere but he comes here because he wants to.’’
Likewise, Blanchett sees herself as a daughter of this soil, first and foremost, because ‘‘ there’s a particular way of looking at the world that comes out of here and I think when you’re away from it for a while, you do miss it’’. Theatre, too, is an enduring passion. Film projects in the pipeline include The Monuments Men with George Clooney, Blue Jasmine with Woody Allen, Carol with Mia Wasikowska, a role as the wicked stepmother in Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and a part in David Mamet’s Blackbird, to be shot in Sydney. But her heart remains captive to the stage, and particularly to this state theatre by the harbour. She speaks with a sense of nostalgia about the five years she and Upton have spent as the company’s co-artistic directors (Upton’s first official solo season kicks off next year) but it’s not without an awareness of its drawbacks: as actor and friend Richard Roxburgh said last year, the role of artistic director, with its politics and feuding egos, is inherently ‘‘ treacherous’’ and ‘‘ kind of ghastly’’.
Asked if she leaves with a feeling of relief or sadness, she pauses and then replies slowly that ‘‘ it’s both. I’m a very private person and it’s a very public position and, frankly, I was getting sick of the sound of my own voice. But I’m still as passionate about the work of the company as I ever was. This is where I had my first job [as an understudy in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls], and I’m enormously proud of it.’’ The highlight of her star-studded tenure? It’s not the Uncle Vanyas and Hedda Gablers but the staging of Kate Grenville’s controversial settler epic The Secret River earlier this year, because it was a ‘‘ very delicate project and we got there. It was so beautiful and remarkable, and I’m incredibly proud of it.’’
With that, Blanchett considers her now empty soup bowl, stands up and shakes my hand. Debicki does the same. The lunch break is over and Andrews is waiting. So too is the strange world of Genet’s mad servants, in the rehearsal space across the road.
Clockwise from far left, Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett at the Sydney Theatre Company; Isabelle Huppert, Blanchett and Debicki rehearse for the STC; Debicki in and Benedict Andrews and Blanchett at the STC