THE PLAY RE­MAINS STRIK­INGLY MOD­ERN IN ITS PRE­OC­CU­PA­TIONS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Theatre - The Maids

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.

The Maids The Great Gatsby;

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

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