The Maids Make a Mess – An STC Production
In 1947 when Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes (The Maids) first appeared it shocked. The play tells the tale of two house maids who secretly desire to murder their Mistress. Each night the pair, Claire and Solange, takes turns in adopting their Mistress’ persona. The other pretends to bow and scrape after her until the tables turn and they enact their violent desire. Of course, when the Mistress returns both girls become the proper meek and obedient maids, at least on the surface. They have however hatched a plot to be rid of their overbearing Mistress, and although it is nowhere near as direct or violent as their fantasy the result is the same.
Like many of Genet’s plays The Maids deals with similar themes: power, freedom, cruelty, ritual, fantasy and identity. Through the sadomasochistic fantasy of their role play, the maids are able to enact their desires for cruelty and violence. In these brief moments they experience a power and freedom they would otherwise never know. Broadly speaking the play is a study of the darker desires lurking below the surface which are kept in check by the constraints of society. It is also a deep analysis of the masks we wear to hide such desires. Genet is dealing with some pretty meaty ideas here. Unfortunately, Benedict Andrews’ production does not engage the audience with any it.
First and foremost the problem could very well be the translation. For this production Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton decided to translate the original text themselves, supposedly to update the piece. Bluntly, neither is renowned for their ability to translate, which is an art form in its own right. The text, especially during the first scene, feels needlessly dense, overwritten and difficult to follow. This isn’t helped by the fact that Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert race through their delivery. The result: the text washed over the audience and essential plot points were missed.
Benedict Andrews also made the choice of having a video screen above the stage which offered the audience different angles of the performance. There was a ‘logic’ behind this. In the program Andrews explains the screen was used to develop the idea that the maids’ identities were fragmented and that this was a reflection of the fantasies and fictions the two build around them. This is a nice idea which is certainly consistent with the text, yet tragically overdone. At best (10% of the time) the video screen offered an interesting angle, at worst (the other 90%) it acted only as a distraction from the performance and needlessly pulled focus. Alice Babidge’s set was also extremely extravagant, in classic STC style. It does not serve the purposes of the text (a middle class mistress’ bedroom) and instead looks like a funeral parlour. There were just too many flowers and no personal décor – it was sterile and thus an emotionless setting.
Unfortunately there were acting issues as well. To state the obvious, Isabelle Huppert is a French-speaking actress. Unsurprisingly, she suffers in an English role. The biggest problem for Huppert is that the text is so language driven. Her dramatic pace and timing inevitably sat a bit off centre, and at times she struggled to keep up with Blanchett in conveying every nuance the script affords. Particularly, Huppert found it difficult to capture exactly who Solange was. This is not strictly her fault however. Huppert is evidently an actress of great skill. Her comedic skill is highly polished, and she is able to produce genuine moments of hilarity. It thus seems unfortunate that her talent was largely lost in translation (to excuse the pun). In the end, she was probably miscast. Upton (almost) inadvertently admits this, in suggesting that a dinner party with Blanchett and Andrews was effectively Huppert’s audition.
Like Huppert, the luminosity of Cate Blanchett (Claire) is not to be doubted. She is every bit the first rate actress, with an impeccable tone and controlled pace to match. Nevertheless, Blanchett at times could be accused of overacting. Whether to compensate for Huppert’s language difficulties or for some other reason, she seemed pushed to melodramatic heights which were not altogether warranted by the text. This can be somewhat excused however as she is every bit the professional, aiding her partner seamlessly when inevitable costume slips occurred (for example). Both Huppert and Blanchett seem genuinely comfortable with each other on a physical level, but for all intents and purposes, it is not believable enough that they could be or were sisters.
A pleasant surprise came from Elizabeth Debicki, a positively towering young actress who held her own in a role that was ripe for the taking. It is possible that she too suffered from a melodramatic stint but this increasingly seems to be a directorial error. Debicki was wonderfully hateful as the narcissistic ‘bitch-from-hell’ mistress, who, through single turn of phrase, could reveal her flawed, pathetic nature and debase the sisters irretrievably. Debicki may have been a tad too young for the role, but notwithstanding this, she took it in her stride and did a wonderful job, demonstrating great skill in doing so.
Yet despite the best efforts of the performers the production as a whole was a bitter disappointment. The play drags, you don’t empathize with the characters, and ultimately it’s boring and frustrating to watch. What is even more disappointing is that the STC can get away with this: the show has sold out and is apparently slated to travel overseas. In this case it would appear that Cate Blanchett’s name on the billboard is all that’s needed to pull a crowd. This is ridiculously lazy. STC – you have the money, you have the talent, how about investing the time to make a decent piece of theatre. The audience certainly pays enough.
This production has sold out, information can however be found here:
For those of you who already have tickets, brace yourself.