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The Maids: the invention of theatre

Keith Gallasch, Benedict Andrews, The Maids

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, in rehearsal for The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, in rehearsal for The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company
photo Lisa Tomasetti
One of the great plays of the 20th century, Jean Genet’s The Maids (1947) is about to be staged in Sydney. It is also one of the most disturbing, described by one writer at the time as having an effect more emetic than opiate. That might seem like an exaggeration now, but doubtless the play still has the capacity to disturb us deeply with its account of two poorly treated maids who are sisters play-acting their way to murdering their mistress.

I meet Benedict Andrews one evening after rehearsal to discuss his forthcoming production in a new translation by Andrews and STC artistic director Andrew Upton, with performers Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki and design by Alice Babidge. It’s early in the rehearsal schedule, but there’s much to talk about,

The language and the action in The Maids are intensely physical, the play is hyper-theatrical, ritualistic, shocking. Where does that come from?

The borderline where Genet’s life becomes myth and in the idea of literature as a kind of criminal act—you steal the words that belong to someone else in order to transform your completely miserable and shit circumstances into something glorious. One of the foundational actions of theatre and—speaking as an ex-Catholic and altar boy—of the Catholic ritual and mass is the transfiguration, the alchemical change from something that is shit or dirt or that is nothing more than a wafer and some wine into something that is glorious.

But in Genet that mass or ritual always has the energy of perversion about it. The Maids is maybe the purest of his plays. There’s always a play within the play, as part of its fibre and texture—in the brothel in The Balcony, in The Screens with people pretending to be something else. And it’s a fundamental of every single moment of this act that’s about the beginnings of theatre. Why did these two women in The Maids invent this game? They’re living in terrible conditions, absolutely trapped in the position of the lowest in the society and the lowest in a power relationship. There are two of them, not one. They’re already each other’s mirrors. They live in a shitty little attic where they tell each other stories and, as Genet says in his wonderful essay “Comment Jouer Les Bonnes” (How to play The Maids), they masturbate each other at night. And somehow from this incredible need and this crisis, they have to invent theatre. And I think this is what’s so interesting about Genet, that he has that foundational gesture. There’s a line where Solange says, “My jet of spit is my spray of diamonds.” In each author, each great theatre writer, you find a definition of what theatre is.

The sisters create a performance; they act, but it’s not easy— it’s interrupted, sometimes they can’t sustain it, and they argue about what happened.

It becomes murderous. They invent the idea of murder in it. I think it’s that which makes Genet still radical. I’m not sure if some of the other plays haven’t dated. I think the idea of The Balcony is still great but I don’t know if I want to see it in the theatre. Somehow the idea of the revolutionary in it has dated. But The Maids hasn’t dated in the same way because the problem behind it is so great. It’s born of a real crisis, a gap between wealth [and poverty] that hasn’t changed.

The interesting thing about re-reading The Maids is recalling the shock of that first read back in the 1960s. Then I saw the Glenda Jackson, Susannah York, Vivien Merchant film which is very theatrical but still has some great strengths.

They’re great, all three of them.

The script exudes suspense, brutality and a fearful intimacy around a fantasy that is set up, undone and set up again until reality and psychosis finally undo it altogether. How do you create an intimate space for that in a large theatre? Miking, live projections and continuous sound design are not uncommon strategies now that theatre is becoming increasingly cinematic and you’ve used these yourself to varying degrees.

Benedict Andrews in rehearsal for The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company Benedict Andrews in rehearsal for The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company
photo Lisa Tomasetti
Actually at the moment it’s all about making a space where the two actresses can be free and inventive. But many of those things you just listed, we have! There’s a vast stage space and video artist Sean Bacon’s working with us. That’s been a very good relationship.

He worked with you on Measure for Measure for Belvoir in 2010.

And Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses (2010) in London as well. In both the screens were not decoration but part of the works. Sean’s in the rehearsal room with us. We have Pantrax zoom surveillance cameras again, studying actors, filming them. It’s like another dimension, simply for the fact that the form of The Maids is a box within a box within a box—mirror reflecting mirror reflecting mirror. Once upon a time having a copy of a bourgeois apartment sitting on a stage in a little box would already give you that box within a box. It doesn’t quite do that now. So I think you have to account for this reverberation in other ways: the idea of what is a performance, what’s real and what’s artifice.

In the end it is a play so I’m only just starting to be able to think about the filming that little bit out of the corner of my eye. I know from experience that you have to pay attention to the filming to get away with it, but [right now] it’s just about letting the actors play with each other.

The alternation between fantasy and reality is critical?

When something in Genet is fake, it’s real; when something is played it becomes real. It’s about what Sartre calls “this whirligig of the real and the appearance.” It’s about setting that up in as many ways as possible and enjoying it. Then you have noir and the thriller of hate. And underneath an incredible love story of these two orphan sisters and their incestuous relationship. It really sets us spinning. And Andrew Upton and I have made a new, quite direct version of the translation.

As soon as you have those two women, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, two of the most elegant actresses on earth, so recognisable already as the mistress [in other plays and films] but now playing dress-ups, putting on make-up, putting on their mistress’s outfits, it’s already somehow subversive in terms of what it means for them to play these maids.

Some people call Genet a radical pessimist.

The Maids is a kind of failed revenge drama. The sisters build up the energy of Furies in Greek drama but they fail. If theirs is a love knot, two sisters, it is already a taboo love, again a Greek theme. You have these two people so absolutely bound to each other that there’s no other reality for them apart from each other, They try to destroy the structure they’re trapped in, try to make revolution of it. They invent theatre as a way out of it, but it’s the Mistress who escapes. That whole farce of that society, that whole lie, keeps going on. Now they have to face each other and the trap in a new way. How can we go on together, how can we go on apart? If there’s no escape from it, what can we do? And the act of love becomes: should one kill the other?

Sydney Theatre Company, The Maids, writer Jean Genet, director Benedict Andrews, translation Benedict Andrews, Andrew Upton, Sydney Theatre, 4 June-20 July

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 36-37

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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