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Here is an article and interview about the theater play The Maids, which Cate and Isabella Huppert will perform in NYC from August 6th onwards.
Important: if you want to see the play but haven’t bought tickets yet, due to popular demand, they have added another date: a matinee performance on August 9th. To buy tickets, head over here: click.
Photographer: Darren Winter
It was a particularly brutal murder. In 1933, the French domestics Christine and Léa Papin killed the wife and daughter of their employer, gouging out their eyes while the women were still alive and knifing their thighs and buttocks.
On a recent afternoon, Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett did not seem especially domestic or murderous. Ms. Blanchett was radiant in a red shift and tan boots, while Ms. Huppert exuded French chic in jeans, blazer and platform sandals. But this week they will don simple white aprons and far more sensible shoes as the title characters in Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” a poetic psychosexual drama from 1947 based on the Papin case.
Speaking by phone from London, the director Benedict Andrews, who wrote the new translation in collaboration with Ms. Blanchett’s husband, Andrew Upton, described watching Ms. Blanchett and Ms. Huppert onstage as “memorable and thrilling,” noting “the chemistry, astounding technique, astonishing presence” that they offer.
After a rehearsal, Ms. Blanchett and Ms. Huppert spoke about homicidal women, vulgar language and their tender preshow ritual. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q. The relationship between the sisters is so fraught. Was it difficult to rehearse that, or were you able to put it all aside and go out for a drink afterward?
Cate Blanchett We drank our way through it.
Isabelle Huppert No, no. I wanted to kill her. She was in great danger.
Blanchett It was hard. It’s the intensity of the play. It’s such a labyrinth. There are times I felt like I was getting lost within it.
Did you feel a need to create back stories for the characters?
Huppert Not really, because we know the play is based on the true facts of the Papin sisters, how they killed their patrons in the most horrendous way. There was something of a ritual — a savage, tribal ritual — in the way they killed them.
Blanchett But then they were found in bed together in the attic, terrified.
It was believed that the Papin sisters had an incestuous relationship. Is that true of Claire and Solange?
Blanchett All those textures are there to be played with.
Huppert There’s jealousy, there’s rivalry. It’s so mingled. We cannot come to a conclusion.
When you decided to appear together in “The Maids,” did you know who would play Solange and who would play Claire?
Blanchett Even into the first week, we thought, “What if we swapped roles?”
Huppert We did some readings like that when I first came to Australia. But it was a lot of work, especially for me.
Blanchett For both of us. It’s a deceptively simple play. It seems just a game within a game, but then you realize it’s far more complex and dangerous. They’re constantly arguing about who’s stronger, who’s braver, who’s more noble, who has courage and who doesn’t. They build each other up to tear each other down. It’s a very tense struggle for power and dominance, but also for submission.
Huppert It’s a power game, but it’s a love game as well.
Did you have to struggle to create a shared style?
Huppert We come from different countries and different traditions, but we have a lot in common. We are both movie actresses, and we are both stage actresses, which is not so common. We do a certain type of theater, working with certain directors, doing classical texts.
Blanchett Hopefully, we’ve found a common language or even times when one language takes over and the other language is recessive.
You’re working with a new translation.
Blanchett It’s wonderful to work with Benedict and Andrew’s adaptation. They’ve really gone for the degraded, baroque side of the language as well as the banal, prosaic side of the language. Lots of words I wouldn’t say in front of my grandmother. But lots of grandmothers came to the play and loved it.
Huppert This adaptation really brings the play to a space that maybe I would not experience in French. It makes it profane and more contemporary, rough.
Blanchett There is a sacred quality to the play, but also a deep layer of profanity. They need to butt up against one another. The language helps us do that.
Murder has more typically been a masculine activity. Here Genet offers it to women.
Blanchett There’s a long line of murderesses right back to ancient Greece. Think about the figures of Clytemnestra, Electra, Medea. Murder is such a transgressive, illegal act. Here, Genet is claiming: No, it’s the moment when we’re most human. When we’re most connected to death, we’re most alive.
Jean-Paul Sartre championed the idea that the women’s roles should be played by adolescent boys. Do you agree?
Blanchett Being female and playing a female role, but also doing quite shocking things that only men are allowed to do onstage, I think it becomes more dangerous.
Huppert I think it allows a bigger range of expression, being played by a woman. With men, you’re only focused on the fact that women are being played by men.
In most productions, the maids are younger, and Madame is older. Here that dynamic is reversed, with Elizabeth Debicki as Madame. How do you think that changes the play?
Huppert It’s a brilliant idea. It’s never been done before. It makes it even more cruel. Madame has the power of youth.
Blanchett It brings death to the table much more acutely. She says, “You’re still young,” the way only a 23-year-old can speak to an older woman. It ramps up the sense of desperation and rage and longing and loss.
In his essay on “The Maids,” Genet called them monsters. Do you see them that way?
Huppert It’s a statement about humankind itself. The maids no more no less than anyone else.
Blanchett There’s something deplorable about that monster, but also something utterly magnificent. I think the characters walk that edge.
Is it true that you embrace before you go onstage every night?
Huppert We did. We do.
Blanchett They deeply, deeply love and need each other. We prefer to emphasize that before we go on.