14
Jul
13

The Maids, at Sydney Theatre Company

Yesterday I caught The Maids, one of the big, sold-out productions at the Sydney Theatre Company this season. It’s in its final week here so don’t bother trying to get tickets, though I hear the production may be going overseas.

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert

The Maids is a French play from the 1940’s, loosely based on a lurid true story about two sister maids who plotted to kill their employer. This version has been adapted by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton, and stars Cate Blanchett, French film legend Isabbelle Huppert, and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki who can be seen as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby.

The play is a deadly of class, sibling rivalry, madness, and fashion. It’s staged on a wide glass set representing the mistress’s boudoir, cold and reflective despite all the flowers positioned throughout. It starts in the middle of a joint descent into madness, during one of the sisters’ acted-out violent fantasies of killing the woman who bosses them around, and goes downhill from there.

It was extremely theatrical. Tension and drama were in the air at every moment, even during the smiles. It’s clear that it’s going to end badly, but it’s not clear how.

All three actors were fantastic, especially Blanchett, who really is one of the great stage and film artists I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The production must have been exhausting. They all had a huge amount of verbal, physical, and emotional work to do.

Mostly hidden camera operators in the wings behind the glass, plus a couple of fixed cameras, allowed for the real-time closeups on a big screen above the stage. This worked to draw me in to facial expressions, though I’ve read earlier reviews that imply this didn’t work so well; I’m sure it took time for both actors and camera operators to consistently hit all their marks.

Unfortunately there were two things that didn’t work quite out for me. One was the fact that Huppert speaks with quite a round accent – not her fault – and when forced to run through lots of quick English dialog she sometimes became indistinguishable. Luckily her impressive physicality helped.

The other was that it just didn’t quite connect with me overall. I saw one review, after I saw the play, that said Andrews and Upton were perhaps trying a bit too hard, and it felt like that. A little less might have been more. There was so much melodramatic exposition, so many unnecessary expletives, that it took me out of it a little bit. I’ve never seen the original play but it’s clear that much of what got a bit tiring would have been added in the English translation.

An interesting story, a good staging, and masterful performances, but a bit over the top for me in the writing and direction.

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