Reviewed by Frank Barnes

The Maids

Cate Blanchett (left) and Isabelle Huppert brought star power to the Sydney Theatre Company’s recent production of The Maids.

By Jean Genet
Translation by Benedict 
Andrews and Andrew Upton
Directed by Benedict Andrews
Sydney Theatre Company
Sydney Theatre

This production is a once in a lifetime theatrical highlight. Two of the world’s top actresses with an up and coming star in a top class outing of one of the more difficult plays. Jean Genet is not an easily accessible writer. I have seen The Maids a number of times and not been able to get through the dense writing. I have been able to discern the obvious analogy of the rich versus the poor and the fantasy of the poor about the rich. It is a play about images and imaginings, of ambition and servitude and of corruption.

In this wonderful, classy production we have the genius of Benedict Andrews directing with an extraordinary set by Alice Babbidge The apartment of the Mistress (Elizabeth Debicki) is lush with white carpet and luxurious furnishing decorated with vast numbers of vases of flowers and a rack of the Mistress’s expensive clothes.

The maids Claire (Cate Blanchett) and Solange (Isabelle Huppert) are enjoying what appears to be their usual indulgence; whenever their mistress is away they role play with one of them as the Mistress in her clothes and the other as the subversive maid. They throw themselves around and drink expensive champagne and then have to hurriedly cover up when their mistress actually appears and the role play turns into reality. While the Mistress plays the dominatrix, the maids play their roles to the full while manipulating the Mistress. The play eventually takes us to what might or might not be an obvious conclusion.

I was really excited about seeing this production and I was not disappointed. It was an opportunity to see a difficult show brought to life with a great new reading. The acting was breathtaking. I would go to see Cate Blanchett read the phone book and I suspect in years to come I will be saying the same about Elizabeth Debicki. If you have seen The Great Gatsby you will have seen her as Jordan. You would not recognise her here. She is just 22 and holds her own against the experts Blanchett and the famous and brilliant French film actress Isabelle Huppert. Huppert is a joy to watch, if a bit difficult to understand in this her first play in English. Her physicality matches our Cate’s as she throws herself around the stage with absolute abandon. One of the great joys of seeing Blanchett in any play is that she is never afraid to throw herself around when she is performing.

I had a very strange afternoon when I saw the play. I had bronchitis and had dosed myself with medication to get through the almost two hour play. I was sitting in the middle, upstairs with an almost vertical view of the stage and a great view of the screen on which images of the performances were being shown. The screen was above the stage at the back of the it. The black glass walls of the stage hid, but sometimes exposed the cameras that were filming the show in real time. This created the problem of deciding whether to watch the action on stage or on the screen. After 15 minutes I had a coughing fit, so I left the theatre. I was looked after by the staff, who set me up in the foyer so I could continue watching. I could see the show in yet another dimension while my coughing subsided. I then got to see the rest of the show from the rear of the stalls, where you were unable to see the screen. This meant I had no choice but to focus on the stage itself. It also made it was easier to understand Huppert.

The Maids is still one of the most difficult shows but this production helped me make some sense of it. The performances of the three actresses served as a lesson in brilliance and made this an experience of a lifetime.


Angels in America

By Tony Kushner
Directed by Eamon Flack
Upstairs Theatre

Angels in America was written in 1991 and its first Australian production was by the STC 20 years ago. Then, I thought it was one of the most extraordinary plays I had seen. I was not distracted once during its seven hours and this time I was even more engrossed. This is as close to perfect theatre as you are likely to see.

The “angels” of the play are many and look over society in different ways and forms. On the surface Kushner has written a play about the scourge of AIDS on American society in the early 1980s. Thankfully, the director presents it in American accents.

It is performed in two parts: “Millennium Approaches”, which runs just over three hours, and “Perestroika”, which takes three hours and 40 minutes. Each act opens with a monologue from Robyn Nevin, as a rabbi in Act 1, and as a Russian general in Act 2. A gay couple is introduced, Louis (Mitchell Butel) and Prior (Luke Mullins), who develops HIV/AIDS. Parallel to this is the story of famous but corrupt lawyer Roy Cohn (Marcus Graham), who also has AIDS but is in denial. Prior develops Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and starts to die, as does Cohn. Louis starts a relationship with the married Mormon Joe Pitt (Ashley Zuckerman). And we see the effects of the scourge of AIDS across American society.

This sounds terribly grim but it is so well written that there is a large amount of humour. The production is near perfect with outstanding performances. The one minor flaw is caused by the size of the Belvoir –the Angel’s first appearance was way too small, albeit very funny. I feel honoured to have seen this wonderful show.

Frank Barnes is retired and wrote this in the cold in Barraba while travelling with the Gonski van.