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Cate Blanchett shines in Jean Genet’s The Maids

jean genet maids cate blanchett isabelle huppert Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in Jean Genet's The Maids
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I was in New York last week, and for once I immersed myself less overall in the life of the theatre than in the theatre of life in this buzziest of all cities.

Instead of putting myself inside a theatre seat for every single night or available matinee, I visited restaurants and took trips. I even saw a couple of movies.

I lived the life partly of a tourist – an unfamiliar experience to me in New York, where I’ve been such a regular visitor over the last 30 years I now consider myself virtually a local. (In fact, I am one now that I have an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen instead of imposing, as I used to, on the kindness of friends.)

New York is, of course, a constantly immersive experience where there’s hardly any time to stand still. I’ve been learning to pace myself better there and actually take time out, hence the fact that I didn’t allow myself to be drowned in theatre.

Instead, I saw just four shows across the week I was there – a record low – but I made sure that at least three really counted.

It turned out there was a common thread to all three shows: two were specifically immersive theatre events, but the third turned out to be the most immersively-staged and acted of all, even though it was in a conventional theatre space: City Center’s massive barn usually used for concerts and dance.

Theatre is a forever fluid and changing genre, and it is striking how the forms it takes bleed and spill into each other, but also how apparently inhospitable places can be made to work.

[pullquote]The Maids is a startling, constantly playful wonder[/pullquote]

It takes a visionary director, of course, to make those transactions and transitions flesh and blood. And Benedict Andrews, the Australian director whose production of A Streetcar Named Desire is now at the Young Vic (and I have yet to catch), is clearly that man: his radical take on Genet’s The Maids premiered in Sydney last year and now to be seen at New York City Center as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is a startling, constantly playful wonder.

Andrews stages it as if it is part art installation, part live cinema event, with the actors caught in a Perspex box of a set where they are being observed constantly by cameras that follow them and project their faces (and sometimes other parts of their bodies) onto a large screen over the stage. It’s like a cross between Ivo van Hove and Katie Mitchell’s techniques, as intense as the former but not as intrusive as the latter.

But towering above it all is the most extraordinary performance from Cate Blanchett as Claire, one of two sisters who act as maids to a mistress and whose murder they plot throughout.

Blanchett, as her Oscar-winning performance this year in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine proved, is one of our very best screen actresses; the truth shines from every pore of her being. She’s no less compelling on stage, as those who were lucky enough to see her in another Sydney Theatre Company transfer, also directed by Andrews, witnessed at the Barbican in 2012 when she appeared in Botho Strauss’s Big and Small.

As Ben Brantley writes in his New York Times review of The Maids:

Once again, she proves herself to be the ruling mutation master among contemporary actresses… Ms Blanchett would seem to deploy every theatrical tool that she has at her command, though I suspect she still holds a few in reserve to surprise us the next time we see her.

Within minutes — no, seconds — she switches from the tones and postures of self-effacing servility to raging aristocratic arrogance, from little-girl passivity to assaultive sexuality. She truly contains multitudes. The wonder is that we believe every one of these self-contradicting displays, even though we know that Claire and the actress playing her are just, uh, acting. And she forces us to the uneasy conclusion that acting may be all there is in life.

But there’s so much life in this acting that it may be all we need. I may have been less taken by Isabelle Huppert playing her sister Solange – the heavy accent is a constant distraction, and makes it hard to make out everything she is saying – but I trust that this is part of Andrews’s purpose. There’s also an astonishingly assured performance from a young star-in-the-making Elizabeth Debicki as the mistress.

I moved from this immersively-performed piece to two shows that are staged entirely around their spectators. Here Lies Love, the David Byrne and Fatboy Slim musical now at the Public Theatre (and heading to the National at the end of next month), is an extraordinary event, a conventional musical staged like a club night that gives it a fluidity, connection and energy that might have been missed in a more ordinary setting.

Evita (itself due back in London next month) famously chronicled the life (and death) of the late Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952. Now Imelda Marcos, another controversial first lady behind another dictatorship in the Philippines, finds herself the centre of this riveting, uncompromising bio-musical that charts her rise and eventual fall. I’m sure it will be a sensation when it comes to the National.

Finally, from one self-styled queen to the Queen of the Night, a dinner theatre-meets-circus experience with a difference. Though it is difficult to make too much sense of what’s actually happening here, there’s something thrillingly quirky and risque to the proceedings taking place inside a reclaimed performance space in the bowels of the Paramount Hotel on West 46th Street.

Who knew this space was there? Once upon a time it was Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, which opened in 1938, closed in 1951 and has lain dormant ever since. But now, after spending more than $20m in renovations, it has reopened as a stunningly atmospheric club space, awakened (in the words of a New York Times feature) from “the half-century coma that it slipped into”.

Here we witness a succession of fit and furious, athletic and acrobatic displays; in the middle of the show, a lavish feast is delivered to each table (in our case, consisting of large lobsters, still in their shells, which means that trying to eat them becomes a messy performance in itself).

The whole show is a kind of seduction of the senses – as well as a literal seduction in the case of a young British spectator seated at our table. One of the male dancers took a great shine to him. At the end, he summoned him for a slow dance, too. The spectator didn’t resist. It’s that kind of show.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton