Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Without being able to say precisely what theatre is

Last night: the first of four previews of Sydney Theatre Company's The Maids by Jean Genet, with the director and co-translator, Benedict Andrews, climbing onto the stage before it started to alert us to the fragile, improvised aspect of the play, and the possibility that the live editing work of the video artist and the equally improvisatory work of the 'actresses', as he called Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki, might be interrupted by 'technical hitches'. I am very glad to say that neither were.

This draws me to consider this vulnerable but in fact very important centre of the production more closely. While the video designer and operator (Sean Bacon), behind one of the tall dark sheets of mirroring glass on either side of the stage, seemed to pull against all the brighter gestures of the play with the concentration of his unchanging expression, it was hard not to attribute the audio delay in the images on the screen at the back of the stage to his very serious-seeming processing of the whole. I also couldn't help recalling, in contrast, the way the video artist-glued-to-camera figure in the opera Project Inc.'s production of The Audience and Other Psychopaths at the old Performance Space (nearly ten years ago) had ducked under a clothesline that was pulled across the middle of the stage and pushed into the nervous audience; the apparent necessity of keeping his eye pressed against the viewfinder turning the video artist into the object that was his camera, as if this hybrid creature, that kept wandering through and prodding at our vision, were just some strange extension of the stage itself. In The Maids last night, I could see, however, that such a monster could never have been born. The proscenium arch was there to make us conscious of our viewing and so conscious of needing to process what we were viewing, just as Sean Bacon was viewing and processing what he was seeing through the many layers of glass between him and the players and flowers and objects on the stage (and behind it): conscious of how the entire production was a viewing, and a momentarily delayed, processing of the whole; the eye and the camera having had to come loose. There could be, I had to admit, no other expression on the video artist's face but the one of concentrated watching: a watching that was aware that it was also being watched by the audience. In the director's note, Benedict Andrews writes that his 'first impulse for The Maids was the idea of the mise en abyme -- the mirror that reflects a mirror'. We participate, even as we are subjected to, the odd fragility of this labyrinth.

Jean Genet's instructions for the playing of The Maids begins with the one word: 'Furtive'. This is indeed the word that had to be moving Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in all their extraordinary, raw webbing of the stage. The moment the Mistress, played by Elizabeth Debicki, arrives, what seems to be her excessive height dwarfs them, when perhaps it is only, as Genet puts it, her inability to 'know just how stupid she is, just how much she's playing a role' which scatters the maids to either side of her, the extreme differences in stature between the players only adding to the wonder of the effect.

During the two hours of the production I found myself becoming pulled into the softly nodding but very private fakery of the world of The Maids (although Genet stipulates that the flowers on the stage should be 'real', the occasional stiff, gleaming green filigree of plastic stem, often enlarged on the screen, had been included, no doubt, in gentle defiance) only to emerge a little stunned and quietened at the end of it. From the seeming sobriety of the applause at the end I suspect that other audience members had been similarly affected. Like Marcel, in À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, it might take us some time to comprehend what we saw and heard.

Jean Genet is perhaps referring to this very intimate and, ironically -- for all the luxurious abundance of the staging -- unadorned experience, when he writes in those same instructions to the players:

Without being able to say precisely what theatre is, I know what I won't let it be: a description of everyday gestures seen from the outside: I go to the theatre to see myself, on stage (reconstituted in a single character or with the help of a multi-faceted character and in the form of a story), such as I wouldn't know how -- or wouldn't dare -- to see myself or dream myself, and such as I nonetheless know myself to be. So, the job of the actors is to don gestures and get-ups that allow them to show me to myself, and to show me naked in my solitude and the way I revel in it.

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