BWW Reviews: Sydney Theatre Company's THE MAIDS Goes For Jocular Over Jugular

Two years ago, in the last major production of Jean Genet's The Maids to hit Manhattan, director Jesse Berger played up the voyeuristic aspect of the erotically intimate piece by having the audience view the play by peeping into a lady's boudoir through cut-out holes from all sides of a four-walled set.

Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Director Benedict Andrews' new production, a Sydney Theatre Company import taking temporary residence at City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, utilizes a more exhibitionist angle.

The French playwright's 1947 drama of sadomasochistic role play was inspired by a real-life 1930s story of two sisters, working as domestics, who murdered their employer and his daughter. Genet's fiction involves sisters Solange and Claire, who, whenever the lady of the house is away, go into their ritualistic act of playing out her murder, letting off steam and expressing their hidden emotions in violent and erotic fantasies.

Isabelle Huppert, Cate Blanchett and (on screen)
Elizabeth Debicki (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

The cavernous City Center auditorium is not the most welcoming venue for intimacy and instead of luring the audience into the story, Andrews throws it in our laps. The acting is broad, sometimes extending into camp, and a giant screen displays extreme close-ups to the back of the house, often comically grotesque. Flowers are everywhere as is an abundance of shoes and contemporary designer fashions.

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert admirable dive into the highly physical staging, the latter utilizing a thick French accent. They mug for the hidden cameras, execute sight gags and, in the translation co-authored by Andrews and Andrew Upton, spew out vulgarities that replace Genet's heightened poetry with comical bitchiness.

As the mistress of the house, Elizabeth Debicki exudes icy supermodel detachment.

The first half of the evening entertains, for sure, but when Genet takes the play into volatile territory where the lines between fantasy and reality blur, the actors are left without a solid foundation to build any kind of danger or tension, let alone a juicy exploration of class warfare.

And that's when it becomes clear that this mounting of The Maids is little more than a flashy, energetic showpiece. Amusing, but hardly stimulating.

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