Benedict Andrews has been a defining force on the Australian theatre scene in the last decade. His audacious productions like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and War Of The Roses stand out in the theatrical memory as landmark events. One need only look at the current main stages, to the productions of Simon Stone or Matthew Lutton, to see the long shadow of Andrews’ influence.

And while it might be Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert on the poster for this new production of French writer Jean Genet’s The Maids, it’s Andrews’ theatrical imagination that is the driving energy. The production is also the realisation of a life-long passion for the director. “I’ve loved Genet since I was 15,” says Andrews, “I was very obsessed with him and I never went near him as a director.” It wasn’t until Blanchet and Upton (who at the time were still both co-artistic directors at STC) suggested the play that Andrews finally entertained the idea of taking on the work of his idol.

Set in an alluring apartment, the play sees two sisters who are maids, losing their minds. Each night they play out sadomasochistic fantasies, where their wealthy mistress is murdered but on this particular night, it seems the fantasy might not be enough to sate them.

And of utmost important to Andrews was a successful match in The Maids’ two leading ladies. Blanchett has found her match in Huppert, the French legend of stage and screen (particularly memorable for her incredible turn in 2004’s I Heart Huckabees as a sexy nihilist). “It’s fascinating because you have these two queens on stage together and they’re both very playful, they’re both adventurous,” says Andrews.

For Andrews the play goes to the source of what theatre is. “It’s about the act of playing – why you need to be someone else and it comes out of a crisis,” he says. “The sisters are each other’s mirrors. Good, bad and ugly distorting mirrors. They love each other too much but they also hate each other – they’re trapped in the same prison cell and everything that’s shit in themselves they see in the other one. It’s an intense volatile closeness that the piece is about.”

It’s messy material, but as Andrews explains that’s what drew him to the work. “I’ve never done anything well made,” he says, “I’m not of a school that you adapt a play to make it more digestible, because the danger in that is that it becomes a kind of soap opera. Everything that is knotty and ambivalent and fucked up about the play is ironed out.”

But for all the praise Andrew’ work has received, his shows have also been dogged by criticism, none more so than his last Sydney effort Every Breath, which was savaged by the local press. “My writing is very important to me and I took a big risk by directing the play myself even though I never intended to. I find all of [the criticism] very hurtful, but fuck it… I’m aware that I’m not writing user-friendly plays. I find it limited and small and sad that you only get sentimental wishy washy bullshit going on the stages where everybody feels some sort of false middle-class notion of catharsis at the end of the play.”

His passion for his art is intoxicating, and it’s clear that in The Maids, Andrews has found a play that suits him down to the ground. “It’s a mirror reflecting another mirror in an endless hall of mirrors and you’re stumbling through this labyrinth following these two queens playing maids. Formally, conceptually, politically and imaginatively it’s transgression.”

BY SIMON BINNS

Sydney Theatre Company present The Maids until July 20.

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