DISCLAIMER: I have self-diagnosed Cate-Blanchett-ology!

FACT: I attended Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Jean Genet’s, The Maids. First in the balcony right on August 9th and next in the Orchestra left on August 12th, 2014 located at the New York City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

BONUS: During Q&A sessions I spoke with The Director of the Sydney Theatre Company, Andrew Upton, the Director, Benedict Andrews, and the cast of the play Elizabeth Debicki, Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett.

Happy to report that I AM INSPIRED!

Why attend a play about murder, sex and death? Despite those themes being quite dramatic and drawing crowds through the ages, I really couldn’t resist an opportunity to watch Blanchett, an acting HERO of mine, at work!

Both Blanchett and Huppert have quite a bit of experience (and award collection) for delving into challenging material. In fact, when I prompted Andrews about what he respects most in a creative collaboration he described casting the entire ensemble because of their, “willingness to go all the way, to not be lazy, to ask big questions [and] to make big offers”.

First steps of developing the play involved the chic set design by Alice Babidge and the employing of 10 cameras to monitor it. I was intrigued, but not sold on the cameras at first. The cameras captured close ups of objects on stage, unattractive facial expressions of the actresses in moments of distress, and even the mistress’ toilet use. Debicki described the cameras as being “surveillance-ish” and that she “started to enjoy how ugly and horrible it can be to get your face really close to the mirror”.  Andrews provided a “construction on the stage” for the actresses to work around. He mentioned their effort to use the theatre to turn reality inside out and as “an interrogation of the performance… and what the piece is about”.  Once I realized how relevant the hunting out of these character’s flaws is to the society we live in, where people’s lives can be sought at the touch of a button, I warmed to the multimedia aspect of this performance.

On its surface the piece is about two sisters (Solange/Huppert and Claire/Blanchett) who work as maids for a very wealthy, and younger, Mistress/Debicki. The sisters have developed a habit of reaching a state of euphoria by role-playing the mistress and mimicking her gestures and lifestyle. They ritualistically wear her expensive clothes, make-up and jewels without her knowledge and even plot to murder her.  The mistress’ flowers became the maid’s whips to play with power when no one is looking.  By clowning around with each other in places where an onlooker might initially feel fear, disgust, anger or sadness in response to the criminal nature of the sisters’ actions the humor managed to make a theatre of over 2000 people continuously laugh!

As the characters delved deeper into the play I experienced more serious comments on society begin to unfold.  I started to care for the characters being portrayed on stage. They made me laugh so that in a moment where Claire collapses out of her role-playing game and calls for her older sister out of shame and sheer exhaustion my molecules were changed.  I felt her pain.  As an audience member I was inadvertently asked to look past the danger of empathizing with a person committing crime and to look at her human condition of suffering instead.

Andrews reminded me that, “something concrete is actually happening… these two women, these two sisters, live in insufferable conditions and are the lowest of the low. From that position… objection… humiliation and shame… from that terrible necessity, that powerlessness, they invent this ritual… this hatred for the woman that oppresses them”.

Blanchett found it important to search out truth in, not only her character’s smaller gestures, but her grand gestures as well. An example she offered is people on reality television shows, “they believe it… they’re very aware of being watched and I think that’s what we harness is that sometimes we become excessive when we think someone’s watching us”.

Naturally there was a lot of curiosity into Blanchett’s process of preparation for this role.  I’m sure I was grinning when Blanchett said she loves rehearsal because so do I!  She said, “the material and the people in the room dictate what you have to do. I don’t have any one process, it’s sort of a bastard process really, theater is a bastard form, it’s a bit of dance…musical… tragedy… comedy… pop-culture… high art, and I think it depends on the piece you’re working on what you have to do”.

It can be refreshing to know, and exciting to accept that challenge, that an actor has multiple ways into a character.  Each new character might demand something new to be discovered and exploded during the rehearsal process and then shared with the world.

In terms of the physical and emotional demands placed on an actor Blanchett assured that “actors usually do 8 shows a week and you get ‘show fit’ during the course of rehearsing, not like you’re going from a standing start”.  The actresses in this play spent 18 weeks in rehearsal in order to fully use the stage to carry out complicated and detailed physical choreography.  They run, crawl, jump, roll, spit, punch each other and have severe emotional breakdowns for a 1 hour and 45 minute show with no intermission.

“I love the way Beno [as Blanchett calls Andrews] works because as a director he’s got a very clear framework, but as he always says … if you leave the room with your first idea you’ve sort of screwed up in a way, so he’s willing for actors to throw everything at him to see what sticks”.

Andrews reflected that, “theater is the place where we can dangerously think about questions like… what is society? What is culture? What is class? What are the values?”

In a world where I am witnessing technology having the ability to remove us from human contact and emotional accountability to each other I really do appreciate a mounting of Genet’s play.  It is worth a shot at examining why Solange and Claire do what they do- whether that be what they do when no one is looking or how they change when submitting to the powers-that-be in their life.  It is interesting and requires that the actors reserve all judgment of the characters being played.  A challenge that I witnessed this ensemble meet in The Maids.




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