‘Love, hate and stench’: Marta Dusseldorp and Essie Davis unite for Genet’s The Maids

The Guardian
The Guardian

“The dominoes just fell,” Marta Dusseldorp says in her distinctive, dry timbre. She’s remembering the early days of the pandemic, when job after job in her industry toppled.

The star of Janet King and A Place to Call Home sits with her latest co-star, Essie Davis (Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, True History of the Kelly Gang), in a light-filled corner of Hobart’s heritage Detached Gallery during a rehearsal break. Soon they’ll appear on stage together, for the first time, in a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids.

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Davis winces to recall those stressful times of early 2020. “I literally got off a plane from having opened two films, in America, England and Australia, and every cinema shut down,” she says. “I was like, ‘well, that was a lot of work, to just watch everything go” – Davis mimes an explosion. “The rug was pulled out from every live performer’s feet and our whole industry just went down the plughole.”

“It was pretty devastating,” Dusseldorp agrees. She was filming Foxtel’s Wentworth at the time. She and her husband, the actor and director Ben Winspear, had moved their young family to his home town of Hobart in 2017. Davis and her film director husband, Justin Kurzel, made the same move at almost the same time – she grew up here and has always called it home. Back in those pre-Covid times it seemed a simple-enough plan: be based in Tasmania and fly out to jobs across Australia and overseas.

Dusseldorp and Winspear had set up their own company, Archipelago Productions, before the pandemic. When it hit they quickly knuckled down, sought grants, and created opportunities for local performers to keep working on the island. One of those opportunities is The Maids. Dusseldorp calls it their “Covid baby”.

The dearth of two-handers for women around is reflective of the fact that men have dominated

Marta Dusseldorp

“Essie and I got together because of the pandemic,” she says. “Neither of us were away and we started chatting. We really wanted to work together so I started looking for plays where I could really work with Essie as opposed to going off when she came on – there are a lot of those for women – and I just fell back on The Maids.”

First performed in Paris in 1947, it’s a self-conscious play about two adult sisters, both maids, who role-play scenarios in which they murder their mistress. Dusseldorp says the play, based on a true story, is about “power games, and love, and hate, and stench”.

“He [Genet] is like Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Gibson, Chekhov … he’s got the same sort of energy. I had heard of the translation Martin Crimp had done and I just loved it – the language in it … and I just found it really funny and dangerous and everything I’d hoped.”
Stephanie Jack, at rear, appears with Marta Dusseldorp and Essie Davis in The Maids. Photograph: Adam Gibson

Dusseldorp laments how difficult it was to find a play with two great female roles.

“The dearth of two-handers for women around is reflective of the fact that men have dominated. Men have been dominating in the writing, men have been dominating in the performance … I think it’s changing but not fast enough for me!” She laughs as she taps at her watch.

Both performers have an impressive back catalogue of theatre roles to their names – Dusseldorp spent three years contracted to the Actors Company with the Sydney Theatre Company, and Davis began her career with the Bell Shakespeare Company, straight out of Nida. They have been focusing on film and television roles over the past decade or so, partly because those roles have more family-friendly schedules, and they pay significantly more. They are both clearly thrilled to be returning to theatre, with its capacity for depth.

“I reckon I probably spent the first half of my career doing theatre,” says Davis, “and having the most fantastic roles, just brilliant, and then trying to move over into film, and into that international world, the roles in film and television were just really … ” Here Davis pauses, with a look of disgust, searching for the words. She mimes fluidity, and comes up with “watery gruel, in comparison to roast beef!” before letting out one of her signature warm, full-body cackles.

“And I’m also incredibly fortunate that that has changed, now, for me,” she says. “I’m getting to play some female roles in film and television that actually have the kind of mountain journey that the roles that I have played in theatre have had. But that’s been a really long career, getting to that opportunity, to get those kinds of roles, and for those kinds of roles to be there for women, because usually it was a man’s journey.”

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This production also features another local actor, Stephanie Jack, as the character of Mistress. Winspear is directing, Justin Kurzel, whose much-discussed film, Nitram, was released in Tasmania last week, is designing the set and costumes. Augie March’s Glenn Richards, who also now lives in Hobart, is creating the sound compositions.

It’s the kind of entertainment that Hobart’s audiences are clearly thirsty for. The shows, which start at the end of the month, have all sold out well in advance. They have been invited to tour the production interstate but, with southern Tasmania in lockdown at the time of writing, and its borders firmly shut to much of the mainland, we will have to wait and see whether Covid lets this show go on.

• The Maids opens at Hobart’s Playhouse Theatre on 30 October . All shows have sold out

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