Because of the superstar presence of Cate Blanchett, the season of Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids’ has been a sell-out here in Sydney. The radiant Miss B received a standing ovation from her most enthusiastic fans and there was great energy and total commitment in her performance. But, with a weary intake of breath, one has to wonder how this production ever made its way to the stage in its current state of chaos.
The new translation was handled by Blanchett’s husband, Andrew Upton, who is also the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, and Benedict Andrews, the director of the production. Perhaps those dual roles for both men provide a clue as to how on earth this mish-mash ever made it through rehearsals without someone pulling it together. An artistic director with some objectivity and distance would have surely told the assembled cast and crew that Isabelle Huppert, playing opposite Cate Blanchett, was literally incomprehensible as she gabbles her way through speech after speech in her heavily accented English. Let us be clear – it is not merely that Huppert’s accent is very strong but it seems almost as if she has learnt the script phonetically, as there is so little connection between what she says and what she does. The incoherence of her performance is mystifying. Whenever a fine actor like Huppert is lost, then the responsibility must come back to rest with the director. Andrews has failed to help her shape her performance into anything that makes sense, so no matter what Blanchett and the impressive newcomer, Elizabeth Debicki, try in an attempt to bring the play together, they are fighting a losing battle. Their response to the manic bursts of energy from Huppert was to inject more and more energy themselves and they have to be commended for their efforts but ultimately the audience was left a little dazed and confused by a display of what appeared to be mass hysteria.
The use of television cameras to highlight various areas of the play and throw them up on a giant screen upstage of the action is not new. There are moments, especially when Cate Blanchett is putting on make-up at her mistress’s dressing table, where the presence of a camera is effective but for the most part, the camerawork presents poorly framed images that are more distracting than enlightening or engaging. Again, the director might have more usefully focussed his attention on the interplay between the characters than on a gimmick.
The play itself was very largely lost in the confusion. The new translation was sprinkled with so many expletives that they quickly lost their sting. Genet’s rage against class and patronage could perhaps have found resonance with an audience had it not been lost in the maelstrom. The play’s text seethes with menace but where a skillful director might have held his cast back, letting the tension build and the danger increase, Andrews has started the play with all the knobs turned up to ten – and the only place to go from ten is an unsubtle blast of, well, eleven.
A tour has been planned but as much as I would dearly love to see the Sydney Theatre Company thrive and prosper, if it is coming to a town near you, there are many other ways you could spend an evening, perhaps by renting some DVDs to see the excellent cast (Debicki is in ‘The Great Gatsby’) at their best. Overall, this production took some of the best talent in the world and made of it a great bowl of ‘zuppa inglese’. The responsibility lies with the director.