Cate Blanchett and her husband, playwright Andrew Upton, have been the Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company since 2009. Just before Blanchett retires from the role of AD, while Upton keeps running the place, I thought I should see a show they have both worked on – an adaptation of Jean Genet’s “The Maids”. Directed by Benedict Andrews, one of the finest stage directors working in Australia today.
I had heard of the play, but didn’t really know anything about it beyond the basic premise. I had heard great things about the production, but one clear dissenting voice, but mostly I was excited to finally see Cate Blanchett on stage. The bonus was getting to see Isabelle Huppert opposite her – and Elizabeth Debicki almost steal the show as the maids’ “mistress”.
The play is about two maids who plot to murder the woman they work for. It’s a black comedy – and this production is riotously funny – and very black indeed. Not that you could tell that from the immaculate and colourful set – the mistress’ bedroom, filled with large bunches of flowers and a rack of clothing spanning the width of the stage. A bedroom that is otherwise surrounded by glass walls.
The genius of the production is that while you might choose to focus on the almost slapstick work of the actors on stage, a large, imposing screen hangs above it and onto that screen is projected close-up of the actors: harsh images of their faces, sometimes distorting them, sometimes exposing the clear devastation of events. One minute it’s an hilarious farce and the next, you’re confronted with a discarded pair of shoes, a twitching hand or a face that tells a story without blinking.
Blanchett, Huppert and Debicki are incredible, not a single one outshining another. Huppert’s accent was sometimes a little too thick to be clearly understood, but oftentimes the emotion or the action spelled it out clear enough. Blanchett, who has lit up the silver screen for so long, is an absolute powerhouse on stage. It seems so ridiculous to say that, but since this was my first time seeing her live, it was so exciting for me. Debicki is having an amazing year, since she’s also starring in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” – and proving she is the equal of Blanchett and Huppert is an incredible achievement.
I don’t remember the last time a production has made me laugh so heartily and consistently from beginning to end. Well, almost to the end. Because as this dark comedy reaches its climax, it gets blacker and blacker until the final blackout. And the three women took three bows. Well deserved.
ANGELS IN AMERICA
Where should I begin? 1994. The show – both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika - premieres at the Melbourne Theatre Company under the direction of Neil Armfield at the Playhouse – and I missed it. I wanted to go. I wanted to find someone who was willing to spend seven hours in a theatre with me. I wanted to have that experience. I was studying writing at the time. I’d never heard of such a thing – such an epic play, such an event.
Cut to 2003. Angels in America premieres on HBO as a six-hour mini-series. This was before I started using torrents to download TV shows, but it’s one of the last times I remember sourcing a video taped copy of something after it aired in the US. Video tapes? Remember those?
2013. Belvoir Theatre in Sydney produces the whole thing, the first professional mainstage production in Sydney since 1993. And I got to see the entirety of this epic of 20th century playwriting on stage for the first time. And it did not disappoint.
I do still wonder how I would have reacted to this as a naive nineteen-year-old. Almost twenty years later, the piece – which is set in 1985 – has lost a little bit of its power but none of its intelligence and wit.
Audiences are still witness to virtuosic performances and theatre magic, even if it’s done in a tongue-in-cheek style. The appearances and disappearances of characters are done in a low-fi way. The angel ascends by climbing a step-ladder. But the power of he text still evokes a time and a place – and tells a story of identity and gender and sexual politics that still remains vital and relevant today.
Times change, people change. The text has changed. Tony Kushner’s programme notes allude to some of the changes he’s made to Perestroika, still wrestling to get Part 2 right, where he says Part 1: Millennium Approaches appeared fully-formed twenty-two years ago. I’ve seen the mini-series and read the text of the script. I know some sections and scenes Kushner suggests are optional. And Kushner has strengthened Joe’s story, though in such a way as it is hard to notice as an audience member; apparently there’s more there for the actor to hook into, while Joe’s ending is still left as ambiguous as ever.
This production, under the auspices of director Eamon Flack, was emotional without being devastating. It was exciting to watch Millennium Approaches, even from the back row. It was thrilling to watch Perestroika from the front row, some of the actors only an arm’s length away. Perestroika is messy but understandably so; the characters’ lives are turned upside-down, they are grappling with changes they cannot comprehend. Personal, emotional and societal changes that upended communities dealing with the AIDS crisis in 1985.
It’s a pity it took me twenty years to see Angels in America on stage, but there’s no way to change that now. It’s not like the show is produced very often in its full, unadulterated glory. But then, sometimes shows this powerful need time to find the right director, the right actors and the right time to bring it back. This production has found all of those elements.
This great work is on at Belvoir St Theatre and transfers to the Theatre Royal in Sydney on July 18.