Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Radiant Narcissism of The Maids

Blanchett and Huppert in The Maids

John Macallum described the recent Sydney Theatre Company production of Genet's dark play, The Maids, as “radiant” and found nothing to fault in it. Did he not notice that Isabelle Huppert’s delivery of her lines was frequently so hard to follow that you just had to let it wash over you, giving up the attempt to understand the words? Did he not feel that perhaps the actress had abandoned the attempt to communicate the text? But maybe this came later in the run. On the night I saw it,  there seemed almost to be a note of defiance in the way Huppert tossed off her speeches, as if getting through them as quickly as possible, looking forward to the end of this production (only days away at that point).

For much of the play we watched two sisters, the maids of the title, engaging in role-play in which one (Cate Blanchett) mimicked their wealthy mistress, while the other (Huppert) took the part of the other maid. In the process, they acted out the nasty power dynamics, the admiration mixed with envy, humiliation and murderous desire for revenge that characterized their relationship with their beautiful young employer.

At the same time, they demonstrated how this dynamic had also infected their love-hate relationship with each other, and by implication, even their internal senses of self. Genet's psychological hall of mirrors (or mise en abĂ®me) is a neat depiction of how oppressive power relations have a tendency to multiply, transforming relationships between people who might have been united in solidarity, invading even their individual senses of identity, so that the struggle against oppression is won or lost as much within as without.

In keeping with the themes of the play, I began to wonder whether Huppert's apparently impatient attitude might even have been a somewhat perverse response to Blanchett's "radiant" domination of the stage. It is likely that in choosing the adjective "radiant," Macallum also had Elizabeth Debricki's youthful beauty and vivacity in mind. Blanchett's influence was strongly evident in her talented, younger colleague mannerisms, however; at moments Dubricki's mistress seemed to have copied Blanchett's maid, rather than the other way around.

Debricki and Blanchett

The "radiance" of this production of Genet's dark play also extended to the set, designed by Alice Babidge, full of light and glass and mirrors and space (“a flamboyant nod to aspirational Sydney,” as Alison Croggan suggested). Video cameras gave us close-ups of the beautiful women on stage and their perfect stomachs (and other body parts), blown-up and projected onto a large screen above the stage. 

Even when the cameras followed the actresses into the small bathroom at the back of the set, they did not evoke any strong sense of claustrophobia or interiority invaded. On the contrary, we sensed that these women craved visibility as much as the audience wished to see their every move, and the perfectly clean “smallest room” appeared almost spacious when projected onto the large screen.

The rapid-fire delivery of much of the text and the equally frenetic movement of the actresses did build to create an impression of winged insects flinging themselves senselessly against the glass walls – or the invisible fourth wall (breached once by spittle) - of their airy cage. However, in some tension with Genet's text, here this seemed less a response to exclusion and oppression, than a sheer product of competitive narcissism.

Jean Genet
Perhaps this was director Benedict Andrews’ point: under conditions of contemporary capitalism, the explicit class oppression that divides the women of Genet’s text between and within themselves is less relevant than a form of self-inflicted oppression that is harder to see, but no less damaging. It is narcissism that tears women apart, leading us to pursue a social conception of the female self as a perfectible sexual commodity, competitively traded on the viciously “free” market. 

I say, “perhaps” this was Anderson's point; it wasn’t clear because the production provided no obvious vantage point outside this perspective from which to recognize it. Rather, the narcissism of the characters was hard to distinguish from the professional narcissism of the actresses, which was hard to distinguish from the narcissism and star-struck consumerism of the audience. 

This insidious “radiance” enveloped us all – except perhaps Huppert, whose strong French accent and intonation, and unexpectedly difficult, irritating performance threatened the general air of self-satisfaction and let us feel the presence of Genet’s shit-stirring ghost even as his words were blurred in translation.

On the evening I saw The Maids, at the end Blanchett softened visibly with pleasure while taking her bow, and Debricki beamed. Between them, a more restrained Huppert gave the enthusiastic audience a smile that seemed mildly ironic, as if to say, well, look at you.

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