Just as it’s a given that I will cry in ‘Warhorse’ (and I did), it’s just as certain that I will have an opinion on a Benedict Andrews show (and I do). His latest project, after a long absence post ‘Every Breath’ is the new English translation by Andrews and Andrew Upton of Jean Genet’s ‘The Maids’, now showing at the Sydney Theatre. Gosh, it seems appropriate that on the two year anniversary of my blog I get to review a Benedict Andrews play, so here it goes:
Boooooooooriiiing. There. That’s my opinion. Soporific. I have to say I was somewhat surprised. I’m used to being disrespected, outraged or surprised by the reoccurrence of those BATSHIT tricks (BINGO) and Andrews’ style but bored and disinterested, that felt new.
Why was I bored? Well, it’d be for two main reasons. Firstly, the pace of the play, especially when it was just the two maids (Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert) is way too slow. The rhythm of this play is laboured. It needs a damn good edit and someone to crack a whip on some of the delivery and the overuse of silence between the characters. It feels like a soap opera at times (heightened by the video feed- more of that later). I gather that’s partly the effect Andrews was after, except it felt more ‘Bold and the Beautiful’ in a play that needs more kick in its tableaux of characters' expressions and segue ways between dialogue. I did see it on the very first preview night and so I will make a prediction that as the season progresses, I think Andrews and team will fix that issue and it might make it much better than the night I saw it, which was clearly a work in progress. In the program it says it is 90 minutes without interval. When I saw it, it was 125 minutes without interval. Slashing 20 or 30 minutes off this piece would do it the world of good. Slash this piece and not my wrists comes to mind.
The second and more problematic issue was Isabelle Huppert. She is not good. There is no connection between her and the material and no chemistry between her and Blanchett. Add to that, I only understood about half of what she was saying through her thick natural French accent. Problematic, to say the least. That I could have forgiven if there was a genuine conviction in the comedy, relationship and delivery. Huppert’s big monologue at the end was a disaster. Do you all know the story about that terrible production of Anne Frank somewhere overseas? Essentially, the production was so bad that when the Nazis first enter the scene, looking for Anne and her family, someone from the audience yelled out ‘She’s in the attic’. I will admit that during some of that dreadfully slow first half and Huppert’s mono at the end, those words were rattling through my mind. Those words and a sudden thought that perhaps, at this very moment, even watching John Howard masturbate on stage might be more preferable than this.
I felt the play only came to life in the second hour when Elizabeth Debicki, as the towering, youthful and gorgeous Mistress, entered the stage. At last, life, intrigue, and the scenes between her and Blanchett were very watchable. I had wondered, when it was revealed that Blanchett was playing one of the maids, who on earth could possibly rival her as the Mistress. Debicki did it with ease. Blanchett is always going to have something worth the exorbitant ticket price but I think Debicki is the real star of ‘The Maids’. Debicki managed to capture the blasé superficiality of the Mistress and her torment of those under her with humour and belief. She was terrific.
Yes, Andrews has a few of his staples on stage. The mirrored walls were there but they did feel right in this play about what’s on show and exposing the ‘play-acting’ of life. The profanity was prolific but after we meet the Mistress, it makes sense and falls into place. I thought Alice Babidge’s set was great- I loved the opulence of the clothes and the flowers, all of which are designed wholly for the appearance of decadence and none of which provide any real joy for the characters at all. They are there to taunt you but can never be yours and if they are, they remind you that image is a barren king in this empty world. The room fills the Sydney Theatre stage and made it feel intimate at the same time- a feat in itself. Loved the placement of the mirror and didn’t even mind the camera placed in it to allow us to be the voyeurs of those sitting in it (and helping round out the ‘glass box’, so to speak).
The rest of Sean Bacon’s video feed felt superfluous or obsolete. It added nothing, except a distraction. Had it been better used and not mainly for close-ups of vases of flowers, then maybe it could have worked. As it was, it’s an idea that hasn’t made its fruition into a technique relevant to the narrative or style or effect.
The soundtrack, composed by Oren Ambarchi, was another one of those techniques that just didn’t seem to add meaning to the play and its context or style. If it serves a function, apart from the soap opera crescendo that I’ve already damned, then I don’t know what it was. Of course, you can just call me stupid and be done with it (and there are those who gleefully will) but if you agree that I might know something about theatre, if it’s redundant from my point of view, it might be for many others too.
So, here’s my thinking in a nutshell. I think this play will get better. I think that for once, perhaps Benno hasn’t completely disrespected his cast and there are actually some good moments in the middle of this play. I thought the translation worked. The rhythm and pace should pick up over time and if Huppert can radically improve in diction and performance, it could be a very good play. At the moment, however, it is very, very ordinary. There's very little tension, comic or otherwise until you get to the scenes with the Mistress. The season is sold out so I don’t think it will make the slightest difference to getting punters in the door and the fact that Blanchett is in it will be enough for some people to get excited.
But I want more bang for my buck than ‘The Maids’ provides.