Sydney Theatre Company and Colonial First State Global Asset Management present THE MAIDS by Jean Genet, in a New English Language Translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton at the Sydney Theatre.
I attended a performance of THE MAIDS ( LES BONNES -1946) by Jean Genet, last Saturday, matinee (6th July), late into the season, and watched three of the best performances by actors I have ever seen. A sublime ensemble.
A big, big call, Kevin. Consider, what you are saying. I have. I am.
Thus ...... At the first curtain call, I actually lifted my hands in the air above my head. I shouted, "Bravo" several times. On the second, and last curtain call, I did the same, again, even more enthusiastically, "Bravo, Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!", and even stamped my feet on the wooden floors.
Two of the great creators on film, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert displayed on stage, live, a phenomena of talent, skill, courage and self sacrifice - and I mean that literally - that was awe inspiring. Add to that, a young talented neophyte to the demands of thespis, Elizabeth Debicki, clearly inspired to greatness by her fellows, and you have an afternoon in the theatre that will be the bench mark in my experience in the theatre, so far (for, I hope it is only the penultimate one and not yet the ultimate. I am not yet ready not to go on hoping for more - I am insatiable for my addiction - the theatre. Greedy, like a child. I know I have been to a heaven with this performance, but I hope for other glimpses, if not visits, and a stay!).
Cate Blanchett (Claire) came commandingly on stage (as usual), Isabelle Huppert (Solange), joined her (Ms Huppert's presence highly anticipated by me, an adoring fan, since Michael Cimino's under appreciated film, HEAVEN'S GATE - 1980), and each provoked drama, laughter and pure, pure cheek, intelligence and daring, from each other and from us. Each relishing the playing by the other- and I do mean 'playing'. The performance just kept moving higher and higher in its performative trajectory and 'stakes': exhilarating, bracing - I felt I might need a seat belt to keep me stabilised. Somewhere, mid-way, perhaps, in this production, Elizabeth Debicki (The Mistress) swept onto the stage, and amazingly, added heat to the scenario that simply challenged Ms Blanchett and Huppert, and they her, to even higher states of playing - there was no dimming of the energy. This was stratospheric stuff, I was witnessing. Ms Debicki left and floating in the kind of hallucinogenic space of the latter scenes in the Kubrick film: SPACE ODYSSEY, 2001, both Ms Blanchett, and especially, Ms Huppert, in her monologue to the audience, took us to even higher, transcendent places of a heady, almost oxygen-free atmosphere of ecstasy that became profoundly moving and demanding.
What was demanded of me? A consideration of my existentialisms and the despair that that can sometimes give me, which was profoundly mixed, with the ecstatic adrenalin of the thrill of being alive with, even in my relative dotage, a prospect of a future, of some kind, obviously, in my post-Catholic indoctrination, beyond my understanding. That state of wondering in that demand, has not, a week later, really, left me. This is the power of the theatre. This is the power when one is blessed to be in the presence of great craftsmen. This is the power of experiencing that rare thing called art - something of more than ordinary significance.
Wow, how over the top is that?
I have never liked THE MAIDS. I have seen countless productions of the play. A play with three long roles for women is rare and so, certainly, going to be done, and often. It is also a one act play and requires only one set - relatively inexpensive. I have seen it played with all women. I have seen it with two men and one woman. I have seen it with two women and one man. I have seen it played with three men. The play, in performance, had never worked. I have read it many times. I read it again, recently, in the only translation I could find by Bernard Frechtman from 1953, (published by Faber and Faber). I found it, still, impenetrable. Maybe it was the labouring over trying to make the text work that always bogged down the play in production and even in reading it, burying it in futile efforts? In preparation to seeing the Sydney Theatre Company production I watched the American Film Theatre, 1974 version (again), with Glenda Jackson (Solange), Susannah York (Claire) and Vivien Merchant (The Mistress), hoping to find some enlightenment - I did not, unfortunately - it simply confirmed my prejudice towards the play and the author Jean Genet, himself. I have been flummoxed by THE MAIDS, and frustrated to appreciate the work, and irritated by my ignorance to do so, and/or, by the perpetuated ridiculous status of the work.The fact that it was still existing in the repertoire.
Genet's biography has been approximated by himself and the doubts about its veracity have always been a tantalising conversation of conjecture. His radical positions in life, personally, socially and politically have always provoked dimensions of debate of fervent support or hostile contempt. I have always swung either side of two or three points of a fetid neutrality about him, depending on my own life situations when taking him on. Alexander Hay, one of my mentors, had known him in person and was a staunch supporter and anecdotally paralyzed us with imaginative visions of that familiarity - it may account for the NIDA production of THE BALCONY in 1971 in which I performed (amongst others, Kris McQuade, Tony Llwellyn-Jones and John Walton), and Mr Hay directed. I was, thus, introduced to Genet's work through study preparation and I read as a vulnerable, young man OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS (1942), THE THIEF'S JOURNAL (1949), QUERELLE OF BREST (1947) and his first play DEATHWATCH (1944). Subsequently, in 1974, Lindsay Kemp brought his company into residence in Sydney at the New Arts Cinema Glebe, incredibly, otherwise called VALHALLA where he presented his outrageously startling (for me) stage performance of FLOWERS, based around Genet's novel (also, a version of Oscar Wilde's, SALOME). Later one of Mr Kemp's Australian artists, Michael Matou, developed similar works in Australia and, of course, the Rainer Werner Fassbinder film QUERELLE (1982) was released and further heated up my viewpoint around Genet. Later, in 1988, Jim Sharman directed THE SCREENS at NIDA and I was led to further befuddlement about my appreciation of this writer.
In my angriest response to THE MAIDS, I was prepared to read the work, as intended by Genet to be played by an all male cast, as an elaborate charade about sexual role play, involving homosexual, sado-masochistic games in humiliations, both vocal and physical, in dress-up in someone's elaborate apartment or decorated 'dungeon'. I had, by then, recognised that this was a pastime of some in my intimate world. I had, after all, been part of solving the Madam's brothel in THE BALCONY - I was enlightened by anecdotal sessions which led to research explorations. I came to read THE MAIDS, possibly, as Genet venting his spleen on the bourgeois audiences willing to spend money and, more importantly, lengthy intellectual inquiry as to the meaning etc. etc. I imagined Genet laughing up his sleeve at us spending money and time, wasting money and time, on disquisitions concerning our efforts to stage his work and its appreciation.
Recently, however I came across an account of Genet on assignment for ESQUIRE magazine to cover the Democratic Convention in 1968, in Chicago, in the United States, where, only recently, his work had been released from a censorship ban. Richard Seaver in his memoir, THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT (2012) reveals such an intriguing take on the insights, machinations and activities of Genet that I had to re-evaluate my thoughts about him - to take a more informed pick: A man dubbed by the American State Department as "undesirable" (when the FBI file on Genet was released it ran to more than five hundred pages) or, that by the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre as "Saint Genet". I needed to re-regard Monsieur Genet, perhaps, with more than my emotional vacillations (insecurities).
Considering the early verifiable history of Genet, in and out of prison through out most of his early life, and that he grew up in France, throughout the terrible struggles of that country, 1910 is his birth year, and especially dealing, first hand, with Post World War One Europe, with the subsequent Nazi occupation of Paris and France, and the duplicitous Vichy government, and the response of the French citizenry to some of the population on its liberation, Genet's vital sense of the need to celebrate the beauty of the marginalised, the minorities, the beauty of the lowly, the Beauty of Misery: The Cheated, became more profound than ever. Sartre in his play Man Without Shadows
(Mort Sans Sepultures -1944) causes for debate that:
…the meaning of man's life is not established before his existence. Once the terrible freedom is acknowledged (free will) man has to make true meaning himself, has to commit to a role in this world, has to commit to freedom
Claire and Solange, two maids (brought to 'life' in 1946), two powerless and disregarded women in their desperate need to be, perhaps, a human, find opportunity to create roles in a fantasy world, to commit to a role in their world, that will make true meaning for themselves, that will give them human dignity, and a presence in the world that will be regarded and not invisible. That it, ultimately, requires one to murder the willing other, and then the first to face the possibility of execution or life long imprisonment, seems an act of heroic kindness on both their parts for each other (it is the least they can do for each other, considering their circumstances) and a statement of free will, freedom. That their spittle can be pearls of beauty in the light of day becomes a metaphor of challenging conception. The shock of the liberation that Ibsen gave Nora or, an even more precise parallel, Hedda, to society is the same shock that Genet delivers to us in this play, with the free willed choices of Claire and Solange. This came to me watching these three actors penetrating and illuminating the great text that they had been given. It was the first time I had grasped the play.
The adaptation and translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton, of THE MAIDS for this production, is then, a revelation, a freeing from the burden of the Frechtman, Faber and Faber 60 year old version. (I had admired Mr Andrew's version of Chekhov's THE SEAGULL
as well, if not the production of his own text). The direction of this production by Benedict Andrews, as well, seems to be freeing himself from too many intellectual impositions on the text, (excepting the live video broadcasting (Sean Bacon), as someone said "Lots of televisual and not enough dramaturgy" - one had to decide whether to watch the play 'live' or via the slightly delayed projected images where the mouthing did not match the received sound), and allowing the writing to be revealed through the super gifts of his actors.
The Set Design by Alice Babidge is beautiful in its breadth of space, the sheer excess of it - a huge, white carpeted, glass walled/mirrored space, draped along the back wall with a whole range of costume, couturier dress and furs, shoes - furnished in large luxurious assortments of lounge and chairs, table - the period: anytime, really, dated simply by its superfluity of wealth - a kind of smothering in money's material advantages. The lighting by Nick Schlieper augments that kind of claustrophobic sumptuousness with the eerie tones and placements of Oren Ambarchi's compositions and sound design, pressing that oppression further. The costumes are resplendent and amusing (except for the unsightly battery storage projecting through the behind of The Mistress's dress - all the actors are assisted with body microphones, this theatre, notorious for its acoustic problems.).
Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert are gloriously matched. Both, fiercely intelligent, mordantly witty, physically adept (one is struck with awe at the flexibility of Ms Huppert), able to shift from broad comedy to self-deprecating humour to penetrating dramatics in a fraction of a milli-second, with the terrifying ability to cause us to look into the abyss of despair with Claire and Solange, and take stock of our own nearness to the edge of it that we can be, we have been, and will, likely, be again. To have us raucously laughing, mightily disturbed and piteously shaken - sometimes instantly, minutely, consecutively. Both 'playing' the game of performing live with each other, and more especially with us, the audience - we are not ignored, we are a useful source of their energetic offers for feeding their game triggers - their performing habit is avariciously inclusive. Inventing, and not just 'being' the characters but 'becoming' the characters - milli-second by milli-second. It is like watching live that famous Marcel Duchamp painting, "Nude Descending a Staircase" - their acting so detailed in the spaces between speaking and moving, that they appear to be fractured into many beings in the milli-seconds that we perceive them in. Watch Ms Blanchett in her channelling of Ms Debicki's The Mistress in perfect mimic as Claire - outrageous and truly pathetic. Watch the electric bravado of Ms Huppert's monologue and be prepared for the piercing stare out into the spheres of Solange's choices in her despondent world, on that centre stage chair. Because of the accented English of Ms Huppert, the need to focus one self on her is a reward of detail. What is not caught in sound is delivered with the combination of lively physics and a glorious intelligence. No less is the broadness of Ms Blanchett's Australian English a challenge, it catches one in a sudden awareness, and helps us locate the world of Genet's play here in Sydney. This world is no less French than it is Australian.
When the towering beauty of Ms Debicki enters, with a frightening visual reference to a Paris Hiltonesque hauteur, sun glasses and sensibilities, one gasps at the speed and daring of her youth when she takes the 'baton' from these two legends of acting and has them chase her - the other two relish the chase, the demands that she gives them. Performance stamina is required by all -it is breathtaking.
I used to hate THE MAIDS. I could not locate the art of Jean Genet. But, this production makes the old adage: "You can't teach old dogs new tricks", to be a fallacy. I have seen the light.
Writer, Adaptors, Designers, Actors and the Director of THE MAIDS illustrate a genius that is rarely achieved. I was excited to see it and I am grateful to have done so. This is a splendid high point in the Sydney Theatre Company production history. Here is the production that should tour the world.
- JEAN GENET, A CRITICAL APPRAISAL BY PHILIP THODY - A STUDY OF HIS NOVELS AND PLAYS - Hamish Hamilton, London - 1968.
- THE MAIDS by Jean Genet, from the French by Bernard Frechtman - Faber and Faber, 1953.
- THE TENDER HOUR OF TWILIGHT by Richard Seaver - Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York -2012.
- THE CHEATED by Louis Nowra - Angus and Robertson Publishers - 1979.