As showpieces go, they don’t get much showier than Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in the Sydney Theater Company production of Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” the theatrical centerpiece of this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival. Genet based this 1947 play on a notorious murder case in which two homicidal sisters killed their mistress and her daughter. The kind of roles, in other words, that actresses would kill to play. Blanchett and Huppert are demonstrably well equipped to play the parts — but not on the same stage. The mismatching of these super-thesps is quite baffling.
The fluid nature of Genet’s absurdist theatrical style opens the play to any number of interpretations, including the provocative notion that play-acting and murder are both legitimate ways of establishing one’s own identity. Set designer Alice Babidge acknowledges as much with a box set constructed of glass, with multiple mirrors and an overhead video screen. If life is a stage, then this is a stage where artifice comes to life.
Inventing an identity invariably means stealing from other people. This is the context in which Solange (Huppert) and Claire (Blanchett) are introduced to us. As personal maids to the mistress of the house, the sisters share a tiny room in the attic. But with their mistress out of the house they feel free to creep into her flower-bedecked bedroom and appropriate pieces of her identity. By lying on her bed, trying on items from her vast wardrobe — color coordinated and gorgeously arrayed on a stage-length garment rack — and making free use of her makeup, they enact a highly ritualized scenario that ends, menacingly enough, with her murder.
Blanchett gives a dynamic performance as Claire, the melodramatic sister, who flies into a fit at the least provocation. Huppert plays Solange as the smarter, more subtle, more bitterly ironic observer. “The mistress is getting carried away,” she dryly notes of her sister’s exhibitionism. (Huppert took a similar but more nuanced approach to the role in Chabrol’s 1995 film “La Ceremonie,” winning a César for her work.)
Claire takes the game-playing to the next stage by viciously mimicking her mistress’s mannered airs and graces. Blanchett is quite wonderful at play-acting Madam’s cruel and selfish ways with her servants, amusingly playful at first in ordering her cringing maid to lay out her gown and jewels. (“I’m more beautiful than the Virgin,” she croons to herself in that enormous mirror.) And when Madam eventually shows up (in the splendid person of the Australian thesp Elizabeth Debicki), we can appreciate the dead-eye accuracy of her mocking parody.
But Genet was dead serious (and insanely enraged) on the subject of the uneven class struggle between the overlords of society and those forced to become their slaves. So it’s inevitable that Claire’s egomaniacal ranting would become increasingly cruel and quite scary. Just as Genet’s vision darkens and his language becomes more insistently threatening.
Benedict Andrews’ helming is far less effective at conveying the parallel role-playing ritual between the two sisters. In Genet’s cynical worldview, all human relationships — whether political, sexual, marital or familial — are power struggles. That includes the relationship between Solange and Claire. Incestuously close one minute and killingly competitive the next, the sisters are engaged in their own perverse game of identity theft. In the macabre funhouse of their minds, they could be mirror images of one another.
Not in this production, however. Although Genet’s stylized drama is anything but realistic, there’s still the fair expectation that there should be similarities, psychological if not physical, between the two sisters in their fight for domination of their collective self. Here, both thesps remain isolated in their own acting techniques, their own sensibilities, even their own languages. That’s no fair fight.