“I’m interested in people and what they’re going through. In all of my works, people have reached a crisis where the way they’re living is no longer tenable, or will be taken away from them.”
Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in rehearsals for STC’s The Maids. © Lisa Tomasetti
Benedict Andrews likes being misunderstood about as much as the next person. He likes being pigeonholed even less, by virtue of the fact that he cops an unusual amount of it. So the idea that someone, somewhere on the internet, has reduced his body of work to a checklist of staging elements (titled ‘BATSHIT Bingo’ – for ‘Benedict Andrews Theatrical Show Intellectualised Tricks’) causes a pained expression to cross his face. “I don’t know if I want to hear about it,” he says.
Andrews’ international stature and his audacious approach to both adaptation and staging make him a natural target for a certain kind of theatregoer and cultural commentator. (Peter Craven famously wrote in The Spectator in 2009: “Benedict Andrews is my nightmare of what directors’ theatre can come to.”) And it’s true that certain visual elements recur throughout his work: see-through walls and enclosures; glitter/rain/confetti; bodily fluids – smeared. But then he’s also responsible for some of the most profoundly moving, viscerally affecting and visually striking moments on Sydney’s stages over the last decade, via his acclaimed productions of The War of the Roses, The Seagull and Groß und Klein, among others.
Andrews says he finds Australia’s tendency to snipe instead of debate depressing. For him, it’s symptomatic of a society suspicious, even fearful, of artists. “Of course [my work] is divisive – Three Sisters was divisive [in London] too, because there’s such a theatrical tradition there; but there was a robust argument about it, not this sort of pathetic name-calling. And when I come back here and get a sniff of it, I find it very depressing. It’s not an engagement – it’s a refusal to engage.”
Andrews, who lives in Iceland, is back in Sydney this month for his adaptation of Jean Genet’s psychosexual thriller The Maids, starring Cate Blanchett and French screen queen Isabelle Huppert as sister-servants who plot to murder their mistress. Blanchett – who delivered an hour-long monologue under falling gold glitter as Richard II in Andrews’ War of the Roses – describes him as “the most engaged and engaging director I have worked with in any medium. He’s intuitive and gut-driven on the floor of the rehearsal room – fuelled, of course, with a fierce intelligence and unique perspective on the world. He can talk with you about bike lights, stilettos and Sartre in the same breath.”
The actress went on to work with Andrews in Groß und Klein, and it was during the play’s international tour that the idea for The Maids took shape – over dinner in Paris with Huppert. “I was a bit in awe to meet her,” Andrews admits, “because she’s one of my favourite actresses and she’s done such extraordinary things on film. But she wasn’t terrifying at all, and it was hilarious watching those two [Cate and Isabelle] be silly together.”
Andrews first discovered Genet as a 16-year-old schoolboy in Adelaide. The playwright’s heady mix of sex, violence and religious imagery struck a nerve for the lapsed Catholic and former altar boy. Around the same time he discovered Nick Cave and the Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire – it was like the universe exploded. “They were sort of proposing another world,” he says. The ideas in Genet still resonate with the writer-director. “[My work is] often about the relationship to the body and violence, and often very much about metamorphosis,” he says. “The people who begin that night [on stage] are not the same ones who end it. And that act of transfiguration is very important in The Maids, they talk about it all the time.”
Genet’s play takes place over 24 hours in an apartment where sisters Claire and Solange enact and re-enact a strange ritual (almost a Black Mass) in which they murder their mistress. Written in 1946-47, it was inspired by the case of the Papin sisters in Le Mans (who mutilated then murdered their employers) and takes in contemporary issues of class conflict; but it’s also more broadly a play about power dynamics, the performance of self and the nature of theatre.
“I think it’s the best of his plays,” says Andrews. “But you don’t want to do it without astonishing actresses, because in a way, it’s a study of acting and of being an actress.”
Alongside Blanchett and Huppert, Andrews cast 22-year-old Elizabeth Debicki (most recently seen on screens as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby), as the mistress. All three actresses, he says, are cut from the same cloth: “Incredibly intelligent and refined, elegant, courageous.” Casting Debicki throws yet another reflection into the “hall of mirrors” Andrews is creating: two older actresses – “Queens of their own acting cultures,” he offers – playing servants (who wish to be Queens) to a dewy-skinned ingénue.
“It’s such a great dynamic for the play, to see these two women serving this younger, capricious child-woman; it’s very, very interesting – it sets it spinning, in a way.”
Andrews and regular collaborators Sean Bacon (video) and Alice Babidge (design) have created a staging where the performances are mirrored back to the audience via a live camera feed shown on a massive screen. “It causes a whirligig of appearances and reality spinning,” says Andrews. “You don’t know what’s real and what’s not; who’s playing what, who’s playing who – all the time.”
And yes: there will be glass walls – or, as Andrews often refers to them, “membranes” between reality and fiction. “This membrane interests me very much,” he says. “That’s what theatre is – this provisional real/not-real space; a space where the fake is real, and the real is fake. … It’s a temporary re-playing of life. But theatre is more real by not being real.” He gestures at the stage: “all this is not here to convince you that this [performance] is real. It’s a view of reality.”
The ultimate goal in all this, he says, is just one thing: the stand-out performance. “For all the beautiful set design of Groß und Klein, or my staging, or the strange play itself, the reason you go to it is because something extraordinary happens – in that play, it’s Cate: she invites you into the brain, the psyche and the feelings of a stranger, who you don’t understand.
“And that’s Cate and Isabelle’s job in The Maids – to take us into each beat of their thought, and what’s going on with them: their rivalry and their jealousy and their terror; their love, their psychosis, their entrapment – and their desire to find a way out of it. And that’s beautifully, painfully, terribly – and funnily – human.”
The Maids is on at the Sydney Theatre Jun 4-Jul 20.