Classic French play, transformed in Sydney

Cécile Mazurier - 09.08.13 - 6

This article is in English. Read it in French

“The Maids, by Jean Genet, in a new english language translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton”. The note on the poster decorating the facade of the Sydney Theatre Company announces it straight away: Benedict Andrews has taken his liberties with a literal translation of this French classic.

Jean Genet is one of the artists who has the most influenced Benedict Andrews’ artistic vision. Assisted by Andrew Upton, both have translated and adapted The Maids with the aim of “claiming the play right into the present”.¹

The adaptation as a political gesture

Cécile Mazurier - 09.08.13 - 2

In theatre, nothing is left to chance (even if we are made to believe the opposite). This adaptation of The Maids from French to English is a stage of the creative process which concentrates the majority of the dramaturgical bias of its director.

An adaptation is not a meaningless gesture only aimed to make a play understandable in an other language. It is a political and philosophical act. The liberties took with the text assert themselves as autonomous creative acts.

The universality and the timelessness of this great play from the French repertoire then can be revealed to the audience. As Genet wrote in his preface, “allow to show [it] to [itself], and to show [it] naked, in [its] solitude and the way [it] revel[s] in it”.²

From 1947 France to 2013 Australia

Benedict Andrews - The Maids

Andrew Upton was in Sydney; Benedict Andrews in Iceland. For six weeks, they worked on The Maids’ adaptation communicating via Skype. They wanted their version “rough and carnal […], a very visceral and emotional experience” (3), declaimed in live English, as if the play had been written today.

The goal was to be able to adapt the subversion of Genet’s writing to Sydney in 2013. From French to a modern Australian-English, unlike translations in “good old English”, that loose this ability.?

This conception of translation is directly in line with Robert Lowell’s, who freely translated classics of European poetry in the anthology Imitations. His approach was the one of a writer who tried “to do what these authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America”.?

What does the adaptation of a French play mean in Sydney?

Cécile Mazurier - 09.08.13 - 4

In The Maids, the issue of class struggle is not so much the point than the refuge in fantasy. The perverse allegiance to power, and the human condition.

“I go to the theatre to see myself, on stage, […] such as I wouldn’t know how – or wouldn’t dare – to see myself or dream myself, and such as I nonetheless know myself to be”.? Jean Genet used to see himself as both the victim and the criminal , and Claire and Solange embody this doppelgänger of the fractured writer.

It is interesting, this link between this desire of shining in the darkness, the connection with power and disgust, and the dark side of the individual depicted by Genet in The Maids. And Sydney, the first Australian megalopolis, fascinating and mysterious, creating fantasies but ferociously sordid under her luminous beauty.

Besides, John Birmingham wrote to the perfection: “To peer deeply into this ghost city, the one lying beneath the surface, is to understand that Sydney has a soul and that it is a very dark place indeed”.?

Have you seen this production? What did you think? Share your comments in the box below.

1. Andrew Upton, in the program, p.4
2. Jean GENET, How to play The Maids, in the program, p.10
3 & 4. Words from Benedict Andrews collected by Elissa Blake, via
5. Robert LOWELL, Imitations, via
6. J. GENET, op.cit.
7. John Birmingham, Leviathan, Vintage, p.252
Images credits:
1. Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert on stage, via
2. The Faber&Faber edition of The Maids, 1957, via
3. Benedict Andrews in front of his flowers, via
4. Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert on stage, via
5. Cate Blanchett, via

About the Contributor

Cécile Mazurier

Three things about France I miss and how writing is (among other things) a way to sublimate the loss: 1. red wine 2. cornichons 3. sarcasm. I live in Sydney and I like demystifying clichés. You can contact me on LinkedIn or follow my non-adventures in my blog.

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