Mirror, Mirror: Jean Genet’s The Maids

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts
Notes on Sydney Theatre Company’s flagship production of 2013, starring Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert.

In the Sydney Theatre Company’s smart, garish production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, a large projection screen is suspended above the stage where the play’s two powerhouse performers, Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, act out their psychosexual fantasies of murder. Perhaps the most renowned of all artistic works based on the crime and passion of Christine and Léa Papin, sisters and domestic maids infamous for killing the wife and daughter of their French employer in 1933, Genet’s 1947 play is very much stagebound with the performance confined to a single (albeit, extravagant) bedroom set with only a few key props—no more to prevent it from taking place in Epidaurus, for instance, as Genet dictated in his notes. However, in this new reworking under the direction of Benedict Andrews—a divisive figure in the theatre world who previously staged Botho Strauss’s Groß und Klein with Blanchett—the play’s international tour providing the opportunity for the longtime collaborators to connect with Huppert—there’s little chance of a minimalist adaptation, with the conspicuous projection screen front and centre of his self-reflexive vision. Even before the actresses have made their entrance, the striking stage design—part cool modernism, part outlandish boudoir—promises a bold engagement with the formal possibilities of the play, heretofore unrealised, or at least overridden by the psychological density of Genet’s character study, and the importance of conveying his themes through language and performance.

Traditionalists may balk at Andrews’s use of a real-time video projection in conjunction with another of his trademarks, the glass enclosure, but if ever there was a play suited to the director’s signature visual framing, The Maids is it. At the heart of this and other Genet plays is the mirror, a device crucial in foregrounding the act of imitation—that is to say, the masquerade of performance. As fantasists who simulate and sexualise the death of their mistress—although can never quite actualise the murder—Blanchett and Huppert’s characters are play-acting within a play, and in essence, interacting with their own reflections. Alone, the mirror is a rather obvious (and overused) symbol for this reciprocation between illusion and reality; multiplied, it abstracts the physical and psychological environment of Claire and Solange, giving them nowhere to turn from their distorted self-image. Nor can they escape themselves through each other. As sisters, and therefore reflections, their true identities are blurred beyond recognition throughout the play’s multifaceted sense of roleplay.

Alice Babidge’s design takes this necessity for reflections within reflections—or mise en abyme, as Andrews calls it—to a logical extreme with a set that resembles a hall of mirrors. Andrews’s glass “membrane” is especially effective here: not only does it have a practical function, allowing backstage crew to discreetly film the performance with a clear line of sight (although an interesting side effect of the glass structure is that it often creates a prism effect in the images projected to the overhead screen); but it surrounds the actresses in a surface that is at once reflective and transparent. On several occasions, Blanchett and Huppert find themselves face to face on opposite sides of the glass enclosure, forming an improvised mirror image. The enclosure also engulfs the stage in a deep black space, where the light falls away at the edges like an abyss, as if the mistress’s bedroom is disembodied from reality (which, as a piece of theatre, it is). Centre stage is a dressing table with a mirror facing the audience—we can see our reflection in it throughout the play—while at certain opportune moments, our perspective is shifted to the vantage point of the mirror itself. Video designer Sean Bacon achieves this through strategically placed GoPro cameras—one on the dressing table, and another in the bathroom, an additional room built onto the back of the set which is mostly obscured, and visible primarily through the video feed. There are also cameras directly above the stage, employed to surreal (if also, kinky) effect in the opening fantasy sequence where Claire and Solange assume the persona of odious mistress and subservient maid respectively.

Far from magnifying the action for those seated farthest from the stage (unnecessary, as the Sydney Theatre is only a medium sized venue), the screen dramatically transports Genet’s drama into the cinematic realm; fitting insofar as the Papin sisters have either inspired or been the subject of a number of film productions, Jean-Pierre Denis’s Murderous Maids (2000) being the most recent and serious minded of versions. (His film, guided closely by the facts of the crime, focuses on the incestuous love and crippling codependency between the sisters.) As the most dominant “mirror” on the set, the screen gives us multiple angles from which to scrutinize the appearance of things, broadcasting an array of double images in a production already rife with reflected imagery. In a filmic sense, the video feed is especially interesting as a reframing tool, making the viewing of this play much less of a passive and linear theatrical experience. While there’s no doubt some audience members will find the use of video distracting, its unavoidable presence forces the viewer to selectively shift their attention between the stage and screen. Thus, the audience acquires the ability to self-edit the action in a cinematic mode—particularly as the “wide-shot” of the stage is offset by the extensive, almost fetishistic use of close-ups on objects (such as flowers, high heels, and feet), as well as some traditional reverse shots, via the live video feed.

In terms of what Genet has to say about illusion in the face of oppression, and the complexity and power of those illusions, Andrews’s aesthetic choices, however indulgent in the eyes of theatre conservatives, are thematically sound. It was the Hollywood melodramatist Douglas Sirk, whose last film was the aptly titled Imitation of Life, who said that, “What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are; it shows you your own opposite.” Sirk’s intensely prolific disciple, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, took this fascination with mirrors and transformed it into an obsessive motif; the preoccupation with reflections, surfaces, and transparent walls certainly the most recognisable of Fassbinder’s visual metaphors across his film oeuvre. Andrews seemingly channels Fassbinder in his direction of both the stage space and the actors—Genet recommends for the deliberate theatricality of the performance to be nonetheless “furtive,” and yet Blanchett and Huppert are anything but in their roles—and the resemblance of this production to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is impossible to ignore. (Fassbinder, incidentally, adapted Genet’s Querelle for the screen, only to pass away before its release in 1982.) Originally a stageplay itself, Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant remains a masterclass in mise en scène within a single interior setting, and it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Andrews achieves a similar level of excellence in his visual conceptualisation of The Maids.

But what of the actual performers? While Andrews has been quick to underscore the centrality of the performance, the dream teaming of Blanchett and Huppert largely underwhelms. Part of the problem may simply be a clash of accents, with both actresses retaining their native twang. Huppert’s syrupy French cadence, however delicious, means her lines are intermittently hard to understand. Nevertheless, the sisters are French, and the logical decision would have been for Blanchett to adopt the same accent for continuity’s sake (as things stand, she’s a full blown Aussie). While not necessarily a result of their contrasting tongues, they are not always on the same page during their interactions either. Their monologues are fine and often gripping; their alternating dialogue, however, sometimes misses the mark, and their exchanges occasionally sound strained. Granted, this is a manic-depressive treatment of an openly absurdist play, and Blanchett and Huppert are a lot of fun to watch as silly, sexed up creatures, but as Genet points out, the overblown language and theatricality of the scenario needn’t be played so literally. Susannah York and Glenda Jackson clearly had Genet’s stage notes in mind in the 1974 American Film Theatre version of The Maids, together delivering a more restrained and fluid performance while managing to tame the melodrama, though not without allowing the sisters’ push-pull magnetism to remain palpable throughout.

Blanchett and Huppert are at their best when separated, and the introduction of the mistress (played by stunning six-foot-something ingénue Elizabeth Debicki) provides them both with room to move as formidable actresses. Debicki’s mistress has been remodeled as a vile Reality TV socialite, all haute couture and mink fur, but somehow skillfully removed from caricature. Whether circa Downton Abbey or circa The Hills, the social context of the story invariably stirs up notions of class hatred, although of all the major works based on the Papin sisters, Genet’s play is probably the least invested in the idea of murder as class warfare—for in the end, it is really about self-destruction and self-loathing. In a curious “double take”, cinephiles will pick up on the fact that Huppert has played the role of murderous maid before in Claude Chabrol’s excellent La cérémonie (1995), a film loaded with class tension and resentment of the bourgeois—its title almost certainly a reference to the “ceremony” that Claire and Solange enact in the mistress’s absence. What Chabrol’s film also tells us is that Huppert’s legacy as an actress will forever be associated with cold, bitter, silently unhinged characters of this ilk. This may be unfair, and Huppert has entertained her fair share of comic assignments, but the loopy physicality she injects into Solange’s otherwise masochistic worldview comes across as somewhat contrived.

Of course, one might argue that’s precisely the point. Self-conscious theatricality is prescribed by Genet, and Blanchett and Huppert fly off the handle in exaggerated ways. There’s just not a lot of subtly or degrees of modulation—it’s either hysteria or despair. The transgressive potential of the play is handedly bluntly as well: in this new English translation, the liberal insertion of “cunt”, “slut”, and “cocksucker” into the script is attention grabbing, although the overall effect is less provocative than anachronistic. Disjointed as this staging of The Maids often is, Blanchett and Huppert are drawcards in any language (as the sold-out season indicates), and the experience is electric for that very reason. The real star, however, is the mise en scène. When the mistress remarks of her maids, “Their housekeeping always astonishes me—it combines luxury with filth,” she could just as well be referring to the design around her, which takes the concept of duality to fascinating levels. If the text and the performance are paramount in theatre, here’s a production that puts as much emphasis on the image, and is all the more distinctive for it.

Sydney Theatre Company’s season of the ‘The Maids’ runs until July 20.
By Jean Genet
In a new translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton
Dir. Benedict Andrews
Featuring: Cate Blanchett (Claire), Isabelle Huppert (Solange), Elizabeth Debicki (Mistress).

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© Lisa Tomasetti 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Filed under: ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

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Tim Wong is the founding editor of The Lumière Reader. He specialises in film and visual arts criticism, has covered film festivals in Europe and North America, and was the only New Zealand-based critic invited to vote on Sight and Sound’s decennial “Ten Greatest Films of All Time” poll in 2012. He is also a freelance web and graphic designer. In 2015 he wrote and directed Out of the Mist.