Screen stars turn stage sisters, bad maids
It's a tough job but someone's got to do it.
Half-strangling a work colleague in front of a group of strangers on a nightly basis isn't for the faint of heart, and neither is Jean Genet's play, The Maids.
Fortunately Marta Dusseldorp is up to the task at, ahem, hand, which sees her character, Solange, commit violence on Essie Davis's Claire in a new production of the 1947 absurdist play opening in late October at Hobart's Playhouse Theatre.
Genet based his text on the grisly case of French sibling housemaids Christine and Lea Papin, who in 1933 violently murdered their employer's wife and daughter in Le Mans.
The sisters bludgeoned and slashed the bodies of the two women before ripping out their eyes.
Found by the police naked in bed together in the attic, they confessed at once.
Christine, 27, was sentenced to life imprisonment and died in an asylum four years later.
Lea, 21, was released from prison after eight years. Depending on whom you believe, she died either in 1982 or 2001.
But in The Maids, presented in Hobart in a 1999 translation by British playwright Martin Crimp, Genet considers another denouement for the sisters - and for their contemptuous mistress, played by newcomer Stephanie Jack.
Whenever their employer is out, Claire and Solange indulge in an increasingly febrile game of role play in which one becomes the mistress and the other the servant.
As the story unfolds, it emerges that one of the sisters has framed the mistress's lover, who has just been released from custody and is waiting for her at a nearby bar.
The maids hatch a plan to poison their mistress with camomile tea laced with barbiturates.
But when she returns home and sees objects out of place and the phone off the hook, suspicions are roused and events take an unexpected turn.
"What Genet is giving the sisters back in this play is the reasoning as to why they did what they did," Dusseldorp says from her home in Hobart.
"He's showing that the alternative would have been to kill themselves."
Genet was a foster child and teenage tearaway who became a recidivist petty criminal.
He was spared the death penalty two years after the play's Paris premiere when Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso and others successfully petitioned the authorities on his behalf.
By turns funny, savage, surreal and devastating, Genet's play was likened to "a black mass" by Sartre.
Dusseldorp, whose introduction to Genet was performing in Melbourne Theatre Company's production of The Balcony at age 19, calls The Maids "a cog for a theatre machine".
"It's like doing Brecht or Ibsen or, actually, Strindberg - they demand a level of theatre that we're not used to anymore in the age of Netflix," she says, acknowledging that she struggled with the text at the beginning.
But Genet's rigour, subversion of cultural norms and intoxicating language won her over - and Davis too, who is returning to the stage after 11 years of TV and film.
Not only that, The Maids will mark Davis's theatrical debut in her hometown of Hobart.
"Because of various TV work, I had an eight-year break from theatre before going back to do Benedict Andrews' play Gloria in 2016," Dusseldorp recalls.
"I chose Gloria, which nobody else wanted to touch, because I wanted to challenge myself with something really intense.
"If you don't go back to the boards, I don't think you can improve as an artist."
She pitched much the same thing to Essie.
"I was like, 'This play is so difficult and it will take so much mindfulness and connection, you won't even think about the fact you haven't been on stage for 11 years'," she laughs. "And that's certainly been the case."
Although the pair have known each other for years, this is their first time working together.
Dusseldorp, her husband, actor and director Ben Winspear, and their two daughters relocated to Hobart from the mainland almost four years ago, founding Archipelago Productions shortly thereafter.
Directed by Winspear, The Maids is their sixth production.
Three weeks into rehearsals, Dusseldorp is enjoying the badinage.
"Essie is surprising, truthful and cautious but also completely brave, so we've been really throwing it out there.
"The characters are so different," she continues. "While Solange is earthy and more grounded, Claire has this beautiful dreamlike quality - she lives above the treetops - and Essie has that. She wanders off in her mind and I think, where are you now? And you can't stop looking at her."
It is rare for two actors of Dusseldorp and Davis's profile, both AACTA award-winners, to be cast in the same production.
"What so often happens is that we don't get to work with peers because it's one or the other - either I'll get the role or they'll get the role.
"But in The Maids, we do not leave each other's sight. We are each other's 'revolting stench', as the text puts it," she says, dissolving into laughter.
In the original text, Genet uses formal and informal French, especially 'tu' and 'vous', to convey the complexities of the sister's role-playing and point to the power differential between the mistress and her maids.
"As soon as the mistress walks in, we aren't allowed to be sisters anymore," Dusseldorp says, adding that in the original text, the sisters use the more formal 'vous' to address or refer to each other in Madame's presence.
In an English translation, this has to be conveyed in other ways.
"We change how close we are to each other, how we address each other, whether there is eye contact - all those behavioural things that signal to an audience, oh, they're not being themselves," she says. "I find that such a great challenge as an actor."
Being directed by one's partner isn't for everyone, but Dusseldorp says she keeps going back for more because Winspear makes her a better performer by encouraging her to find the truth in each role.
"At the base of all his suggestions is true respect and total care," she says. "There are no power games."
Is there a downside?
"Because there's a shorthand, sometimes he can be a little too abrupt," she says with an impish grin.
"'Would you say that to Essie? At least smile at the end of it'," she emotes, hamming it up.
"And he'll reply, 'That's just a trick and I don't believe it for a second'."
Archipelago Productions has been approached by a major theatre company about possibly staging The Maids on the mainland in 2022.
"If we can, we will," Dusseldorp says. "It's just about working out availability."
This speaks to the fact that both Dusseldorp and Davis are much in demand.
"I have a TV show to go and shoot soon, and I'm also developing something for TV myself with two incredible writers," Dusseldorp reveals.
"I'm on a very steep learning curve but you need to keep doing that as a practising artist.
"The hardest thing for artists throughout this pandemic has been having our practice taken away from us, so I've tried to keep practising."
The Maids is at the Playhouse Theatre, Hobart from October 29 to November 7. For more information, visit playhouse.org.au
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