Jean Genet's play The Maids was in part inspired by a murder case in which two sisters who were maids in Le Mans killed their mistress and her daughter in 1933. In the Sydney Theatre Company production the action is updated to the present and the stage set suggests a penthouse apartment in a glass high-rise. On the left stands a double bed, in the centre a dressing table, to the right two cream-coloured contemporary sofas - "Ooh, they're just like the ones we're getting for the coast house", my neighbour told her companion, "except ours are charcoal - we're doing everything in shades of grey."
Along the back of the stage there is a clothes rack on which hang women's clothes in every colour imaginable. Above the stage hangs a screen on which, at the start of proceedings, a close up of one of the many, many vases of flowers dotted about the floor of the stage is projected, but which, as the play progresses, is used to give the audience different perspectives on - or simply close-ups of - proceedings, as well as allowing the action to shift to what is supposed to be a bathroom, from which images of Blanchett passing her mistress lavatory paper, et cetera, can be transmitted. Possibly because of the screen arrangement, the actresses are wired up and, when they undress (just to put on other costumes - there's no full frontal nudity or anything), various gadgets strapped to their backs are exposed, which struck me as clumsy.
The action of The Maids mainly consists of the two maids - played by Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett - acting out fantasies in which one is their mistress and the other tries to kill her. The two actresses do not actually resemble each other much, even though this is supposed to be a key aspect of their characters - they are meant to be sisters who look very much alike. However, given that Genet supposedly wanted the production cast entirely with males, I guess quibbling about the women's looks is missing the point somewhat. The maids' mistress does turn up briefly to announce that her husband or lover, who has been falsely convicted of a crime, thanks to letters the maids have forged, has been set free. The maids try to poison her but fail and the play ends with one sister on the point of poisoning the other (at least I think that's what was happening - my attention was wandering, due, I'm ashamed to admit, to an overwhelming sense of boredom).
The STC production, as well as updating the action and adding the above-stage screen element, uses a so-called 'translation' by Andrew Upton. As seems to be usual with Upton, 'translating' here means larding the text with new and improved obscenities and persuading the actresses do a bit of that groin-grinding that seems to be a beloved way of conveying 'raunchiness' among theatre folk. Unfortunately, the updating is a particularly odd decision, as it robs the play of logic. As the maids rail against their loathed mistress and howl about their hated work, it's impossible not to wonder why they don't just hand in their notice and whip down to Centrelink to sign on for benefits. Of course, this could have been rectified had there been some attempt to hint that they were illegal immigrants or indentured in some way, but as things stand the vile hatred they feel for their employer makes little dramatic sense.
Perhaps Genet wanted to convey the idea that the maids' plight is really the plight of all humankind, perhaps the maids' employer is in some sense meant to be god and they exemplars of humanity, forced to exist, even though they didn't ask to. If so, this production gives little hint of any such broader significance - unless you count the possibility of some vague critique of celebrity culture (the mistress is pursued by paparazzi as she enters). The performances are curiously unnuanced, with the actresses merely belting out their lines at a high pitch of irritable hysteria. No impression of emotional development is built up during the performance. All I felt, emerging at the conclusion was relieved and ennervated, as if I'd been yapped at by bad-tempered lapdogs for nearly two hours. Theatre sometimes creates a sense of the marvellous, but sadly on this occasion the Sydney Theatre Company only created a sense of being mightily ripped off.