Broken mirrors: STC's The Maids

I thought perhaps this time Benedict Andrews’ mise en scène would make sense, that his staging techniques and or Effects would be justified by the production’s context and or the text’s demands. Being the fourth production of Andrews’ that I have seen – Measure for Measure (Company B Belvoir, 2010), The Seagull (Belvoir, 2011), Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012) – I thought that perhaps I had seen it all (in many respects, I suppose I have), but The Maids only confirmed the fact that Andrews is perhaps on a different planet to most people, especially myself.
In some ways, I think I understand what he is trying to do, it’s just that his execution and implementation – his deployment and reliance upon– of Effects end up distracting from any kind of message or examination he could be trying to make or conduct. For instance: I understand the notion of constant surveillance that pervaded Measure for Measure (and now The Maids), but the live-video-feeding cameras on large screens on either side of the stage meant you were watching them not the actors on stage. I understand the idea of the storm in The Seagull, but to have ‘ash’ falling from the heavens and not be referenced at all in the dialogue seems clumsy, immature. To depict (frequent) sex acts on stage seemed to negate any point he may have been making, and turned Every Breath into a farce. So now in The Maids, when we have glass walls on either side of the stage, mirrors, a live video-feed from seen and unseen cameras dotted around the stage perimeter and dressing; when the set is destroyed (to an extent) and sex acts hinted at though never fully realised; when characters seem to actually use an on-stage toilet, it really does feel like we have seen it all before. And I guess we have.
In the program, Andrews discusses how, at age fifteen, “Genet was very important to me” and along with Beckett and Pinter, “formed the foundation of what my theatre practice and my enquiry into what theatre is.” With this is in mind then, we begin to see what Andrews’ theatrical style consists of: mise en scènes and effects which are designed to shock and jolt audiences, and to invite – nay, provoke – them to walk the line between absurdity and seriousness via a deliberate exacerbation of their inherent dramaticness. Genet, in an article titled ‘How to play The Maids’ (also published in the program), talks about how “the performance will be furtive so that the heavily overblown language feels lighter and gets across more easily to the audience.” He could well be talking about Andrews’ own stage-craft, his very practice of making theatre; his language is both the written language of the script, and the visual languages of his mise-en-scènes which are definitely more memorable than the plays themselves. In years to come, we will no doubt be recalling ‘the production when [insert effect here] happened.’ (It is even starting to happen now.)
On paper, the drawcard for me was (unsurprisingly) Cate Blanchett. When she and Andrew Upton took up the reigns of Co-Artistic Directors of Sydney Theatre Company back in 2008, I made a deal with myself that come hell or high water, I would see her on stage before their final season concluded. A Streetcar Named Desire, The War of the Roses, Uncle Vanya all sold out, and Gross und Klein held no interest for me, so it was left to The Maids to fulfil that promise. While she can most definitely act, I felt that she was sleepwalking her way through the role of Claire, one of the titular maids. Yes, she was good, but there was no heart in it, no depth and or passion, seemingly no soul or investment in it. It was sterile, clinical, passionless. Maybe this was Andrews’ direction as opposed to a conscious choice by Blanchett. Isabelle Huppert as her sister Solange, bordered on indecipherable for much of the performance. Her physicality was at times like that of a young girl, highly energetic and excitable, while at others it was resigned and world-weary, yet the balance between the two never seemed to be found. Her twenty-minute monologue towards the end of the play was dreary and lacking in any dramatic tension, partly due to her accent and also her near-static delivery of it at the very front of the stage, almost falling into the front rows of the audience, too much of a caricature to be taken seriously.
Perhaps the standout was Elizabeth Debicki as the Mistress. Debicki, recently seen in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby as Jordan Baker, towered above Huppert and Blanchett and was more than a match for Blanchett’s grace, physicality and skill. The only quibble I have with her performance is that the role itself is barely on stage when compared to her two maids – her presence is felt for maybe twenty or thirty minutes at most, and not until after the better part of the first hour. She had the necessary air of superiority and nonchalance that the character required, and her lack of care for her maids – indeed, her not being able to tell the difference between them, however in jest it may have been, was rather telling – frighteningly believable.
While Andrews’ effects were in many ways justified in this production, they were overshadowed and rendered near-obsolete when viewed in relation to the giant video screen on the back wall of the stage. There is something worrying at play when you spend more time watching the endless static close-ups of flowers and not the actors, when you try to work out where the hidden camera is and not focus on the maids’ conniving and planning of how they will murder their mistress. The pacing too, tended to veer towards soporific at times – great swathes of silence between the two maids could be removed and the pacing tightened, resulting in a more taught, more dynamic and thrilling production. Advertised as ninety minutes’ duration, it is more like one-hundred-and-twenty minutes’ duration, though it feels much longer.
There is a point, near the beginning of Solange’s end monologue, when she asks ‘And who will stop me now? Who will tell me to shut up and stop?’ If I wasn’t so completely uninvested in the production or possessed of a more anarchic Monty Python-esque spirit, I might well have called out ‘I will,’ a lone heckler in the dress circle. While “earlier versions [of the play may] have used good old-fashioned English,” Andrews and Upton’s new version has, in Andrews’ words, “the poetry of Genet. The language is very shocking because it would have been when he wrote it. We [wanted] the play to be a very visceral and emotional experience.” Visceral, perhaps; emotional, no. What results is a tedious melodrama that, like his other productions, is a showcase for Andrews’ unwavering theatre-practice. Like Genet, he seems to be “obsessed with notions of destabilisation and disruption… [exploring] his characters’ relationships [complex or otherwise] with power, sex, and identity.” Perhaps, like Genet, Benedict Andrews has never really been bothered with whether audiences “like” his work or not, instead delighting in a kind of Grand Guignol circus of theatrical effects, manipulations, and overblown mise-en-scènes.
You can call it whatever you’d like, and that’s perfectly alright. I’d just like it to all make sense as a whole, and not in the fragments I’ve witnessed thus far.

Theatre playlist: 16. The Rehearsal, Alexandre Desplat

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