Sydney Theatre Company and UBS Investment Bank present A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE by Tennessee Williams at the Sydney Theatre.
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE by Tennessee Williams directed by Liv Ullmann and starring Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois has been the most highly anticipated theatre event of the year here in Sydney. After the Sydney season it travels internationally onto an American tour to Washington and Brooklyn (New York).
On entering the theatre Liv Ullmann and her Set Designer (Ralph Myers) have made interesting choices for their production of the play. The set is thrust as far forward as is practicable to the front of the stage (it may have been for an acoustical solution to this notoriously difficult space, as much as for interpretative visual art!!!) and two thirds of the enormous proscenium arch space is a confrontation with a kind of brutalist ‘concrete’ wall. It dominates the space with a masculine grey weight. The weight and domination of this wall is perceptibly different, depending where you are seated. In the stalls it looms above you and can be made peripheral, with concentration. However, in the circle it is a permanent conscious presence.
Cut into this wall in the bottom left hand corner of the wall is a very large tenement - like window, which allows us to see into an upstairs apartment (the Hubbel family, the owners of this building, live there). It is lit (Lighting design by Nick Schlieper) in colours that resonate with the Edward Hopper palette schemes (there is a visual reference in the program: Morning Sun by Edward Hopper, 1952). The room, through the window, can be narrowly seen into or is masked off with a Holland blind. Scaling steeply from the floor of the stage up to the level of the window, on the same side, is a kind of precipitous stair or fire escape ladder on which characters sit and or climb.
Across the whole width of the lower third of the space, at ground level there is a large, when lit, pink apartment, (made up in detail of a kitchen and bedroom and an entrance to a bathroom, the furniture crude and in poor shape.) It has windows into the kitchen but more strategically on two walls of the curtained bedroom. The light, in the plan of the design throughout the play comes from the outside through these apertures in the moody colours of the Hopper painting references (also a Danish inspiration, Vilhelm Hammershoi). Visually the masculine weight of this enormous wall presses down onto the pink “vagina” of the woman’s domain, the home, and contains it. No light from any sky around the edges, just this massive, weighty, dark monolith on this flattened, pink space. A tremendous statement is made.
It is interesting, in that, the tone of the look of this production has been moved away from the Tennessee Williams vision, which in my other experiences of the play, and in Mr Williams’ description in his text, incorporate the sense of “the houses (of the district, which) are mostly white frame, weathered grey, with rickety outside stairs and galleries and quaintly ornamented gables to the entrances.... where the sky that shows around the dim white building is a peculiarly tender blue, almost turquoise, which invests the scene with a kind of lyricism and gracefully attenuates the atmosphere of decay.” Clearly, the original conceptual design by the writer is in support of the feminine story: "white"... "rickety"... "galleries"... "quaintly ornamented gables"... "sky peculiarly tender blue"... "turquoise"..... "lyricism"... "gracefully" It may be in Mr Williams’ mind, a kind of metaphor for the Blanche character and supports the principal narrative journey of the play, that of Blanche DuBois and her descent from a place of precarious but disguised decay, on her entrance, to an insensate and exposed collapse at it’s end. Mr Williams has written a play where the central concern is Blanche, the woman. Historically, with the machismo fulminations of Marlon Brando, and his legendary, nay, now mythical performance as Stanley Kowalski, the play has been culturally hi-jacked. Some of the expectations of the audience have dramatically shifted the play to the man, and although the driving engine to the great moments of the play may be Stanley’s, the tragedy is Blanche’s. This design seems to confirm the cultural - memory misappraisal of the intention of the writer.
However, with the casting of Cate Blanchett in the role of Blannche DuBois the vision of Mr Williams is firmly in place: at the centre of the play. Ms Blanchett has the gift of a great strategist and the "campaign" plans for the construction of her performance in the playing of the play, as they unfurl are truly, skilfully demarcated. Equipped with an intelligent, calibrated technique that is available and vulnerable to every one of her considered choices and then the whims of the "in the moment" impulse, the journey she takes her audience on, is thrilling and awful – as in full of awe. This role is regarded by some as the equivalent of the Hamlet challenge. The journey of Blanche DuBois from her first entrance as indicated by Mr Williams "Her appearance is incongruous to this setting. She is daintily dressed in a white suit with a jaunty bodice, necklace and earrings of pearl, white gloves and hat, looking as if she were arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party in the garden district" to her exit supported by the Doctor, holding tightly to his arm and speaking her heart breaking final lines: "Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." - dressed to a stripped back "nakedness", of pathetic underwear (slip) and no mask of make up and drenched showered hair, scalded to the core, is an unforgettable one.
Blanche, the actress, with her trunk of costumes and jewellery, is ready for every occasion except the last one. The costume design by Tess Schofield is an accurate and supportive character delineation of the fall and fall and the revelation after revelation of the spiralling Blanche, especially in the bath plug hole pull of the last act. Each detail of the clothing appears to be carefully thought out – the chaos of the last scenes magnificently telling of the growing "mess" of the psychological disintegration. The public persona being stripped to the character’s inner needs, gradually, revealing the naked tragic flaws.
It is interesting, if you come to this play with knowledge, for the memories and expectations built from other experiences of the play flit past one as a puzzling accumulation of seemingly non- events. Ms Blanchett surprises one with the choice of the key moments. The great Scene IV “Ape” speech; the Scene IV “He was a boy…” speech; the Scene IX “Yes, a big spider...” and others are delivered in a manner that catches one off balance. So familiar is one of the usual readings (whether it be the embedded cultural memory of the Vivien Leigh film performance or additionally) Ms Blanchett’s readings are sometimes over before it’s familiarity triggers in your memory. The daring of the reading is that it is not built around the pyrotechnics of the usual “great moments” but that that it is woven into a tapestry that only hits you with the immensity of its skill at the end of the performance. It is never one moment, it is ultimately the whole body of the living life on stage that Ms Blanchett builds, that moves you. This is no star turn it is a thoroughly lived experience whose impact is the whole not the pieces. It is only in the last scene of the play that you become aware of the greatness of the tragedy that has just been re-created for you. The pathetic wreck of a woman, guided past the familiars of the Elysian Fields tenement, is starkly placed against the initial entrance of Blanche prophetically telling a neighbour “They told me to take a streetcar named Desire, and then transfer to one called Cemeteries and ride six blocks and get off at – Elysian Fields”.
Stella, (Robin McLeavy), Blanche’s sister, the besotted, sexually appetited wife of Stanley Kowalski is played well, with the difficult tension that the character carries in the play, of one of desire for her husband and one of loyalty to her sister. Ms McLeavy balances it with the cool of a juggler finding the "Magdalene" moments and the tangled "Virgin Mary" moments and attempting to keep her two personas open to the right support mechanisms to husband and sister, without harming them or her relationships to them, while trying to keep her own self in tact. The great moments of the end of the play is enhanced unbearably with Stella sobbing with baby in arms, trapped with her new life and having to sever the old one with her sister.
The surprise performance of the night comes from Tim Richards (see JUST MACBETH) as Harold Mitchell [Mitch]. A surprise because it has all the delicate masculinity of a vulnerable and desperate man/lover who playing, may be his last hand for marriage, is so horribly deflated when he confronts Blanche with what Stanley has told him, that, at this performance, was almost to painful to endure. The melodrama of Mitch’s “You lied to me, Blanche.” and “Lies, lies, inside and out, all lies.” followed by Blanche’s pathetic reply “Never inside, I didn’t lie in my heart....” caused tears to fall. (Mind you, a suspicion crossed my mind as we learn that Mitch still lives with his mum and works out at the gym!!! Poor Blanche, may be she has a magnet for that kind of man? An older Grey boy. Or am I being just to cynical?)
The major driver of this tragedy is Stanley Kowalski played by Joel Edgerton. There is a brooding masculine power in his presence and the sense of his antagonism to the invader of his home, Blanche, is palpable. But it is curiously non-sexual. It is rather territorial and cool. It is as if he wants no other object of attention but himself. Mr Edgerton has developed a magnificent body for this role (as glamorous as Mr Jackman’s in the Baz Luhrman film, AUSTRALIA) but it is, oddly, anachronistic. It has all the attraction of a buffed gym body of 2009 and carries with it an air of narcissism, a self love. A homo-eroticism that asks to be looked at but not enjoyed. I did not feel any sexual chemistry between him and Stella and no real sexual tension with Blanche. There was a kind of swaggering insularity that demanded adoration rather than that of an animal - a sub-human who brought the raw meat home and bred with rapacious enthusiasm and unfettered instinct. Ms Ullmann in the staging of an interpolation to the schemata of Mr Williams, of the aftermath of the rape (or otherwise) of Scene X, by lighting with delicate artistry the prone naked body of Stanley, the skin and muscles gleaming, unconscious to his deed on the bed with a Blanche seated, back to us on the upper edge of the bed, seems to find the sculptured naked body of her actor irresistible. Ms Ullmann and Mr Edgerton have created a living sculptured body as mesmerizing as Michelangelo’s DAVID. A work of art. This Stanley is not a force of destruction but one of beauty. This is no elemental force like the Hurricane Katrina sweeping in on New Orleans. Ms Ullmann puts it in full view to be adored. It is glamorous in its perfection and is contemporary in its attractive aesthetics, in its apparent perfection. The beast is shown as a beauty and the victim is shielded from us. Later we see him as triumphant and unrepentant, we see Blanche as unhinged and mad and depending on the kindness of strangers to survive. (What to make of it?)
Ms Blanchett has at her control an armoury of skills that must be daunting, and hopefully thrilling, for those she works with. Her physical skills are amazingly detailed and flexible. Her voice is powerful and capable of the most beautiful tonal range control to draw us into the very nerve centre of her character. On stage in this production she has no equal. None of her co-stars have, independently, the same fire power or craft dexterity. Mr Edgerton both physically and vocally is limited in the possibility of his expression. Robyn McLeavy similarly is overshadowed. Such is the skill of the leading lady that sometimes her sheer virtuosity, in contrast to those on stage around her, appears to be technical, cool and too judged. Her ability draws attention to itself and it is only in the second act when the vertiginous spiral of events that affect Blanche comes speedily one after the other, and Ms Blanchett is the one with the foot on the accelerator of the forward action of the play, that there is a submerging of the actor into character, because it is all her and she does not need the energies of the other actors to create, she is able, because of the textual responsibilities that Mr Williams has built into the dramatic construction of the role, to ignite and stay blazing from one scene to the next, and gives off so much creative energy to her fellow players that they too take off in the slip stream of her power. The ensemble acting in the first act seemed, to me, relatively cold – it seemed to lack the throbbing humidity of the “sweaty” language intimations of the Tennessee Williams’ world of New Orleans. In the gathering prominence of the writer’s focus on the crash of Blanche in the second act, the atmosphere of the production began to coalesce more densely, more steamingly.
In my view the greatest moment of Ms Blanchett’s career is in the film of NOTES ON A SCANDAL with Judi Dench. It occurs towards the end of the film in the scene on the footpath, where her character is besieged by the press. The emotional explosion in that scene is still resonating for me in its power and truthfulness. Cate had lost it. In the first ELIZABETH film, she was magnificent but harnessed with a calculated technique, in this scene, it was raw. Working with great performers increases one’s own possibilities. They give you obstacles, that, to reach your character’s needs, you must expand to win. Working opposite the undoubted greatness of Ms Dench may have lead Cate to that moment of greatness in the afore mentioned film. Working with the accumulative greatness of Tennessee Williams in the structure of his great playwrighting in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE seems to have similarly challenged and unleashed Ms Blanchett into the necessary heights of the second act of the play. It is retrospectively stunning.
It is one of my theories as to why the Sydney Theatre Acting Company did not necessarily grow to greatness (although occasionally great things happened.). There were too many guest overseas directors who were impressed with what these virtually new artists (to them) gave them and so did not press them, but which they and we knew was there usual bag of tricks. They stayed marooned in their present gifts and were never challenged to greater or more varied choices. We loved them but got bored with them for they too regularly did not surprise us. We knew what their choices were likely to be. So here, Ms Ullmann has collected a great cast of actors from top to bottom, their collective resumes are impressive, but lack of familiarity of the actors gifts (tricks) as not inspired her to push them beyond what they have given her. There is a uniform quality but it lacks what Anne Bogart calls “irimi”, that is the life and death moment of each moment. It is not always played at the emotional stakes that it could possibly bare. All the actors should be playing whatever they have as if they were the centre of the play, but instead there is a politely generous handing of the scene to the leading actors, well the leading lady at least. Ms Blanchett shows us in the latter act just how much this masterpiece can cope with – the grandness of the scale of choices possible. If all the company were firing at that level of inspiration or encouraged to, where would the production have arrived at?
This production at the moment teeters on possibility. But it is a little too “naturalistic” and contained. Some of the audience have felt that the production is not adventurous. And I tend to agree. But it is rather in expanding the choices that have been made rather than any radical new deconstruction. (There is no need of a radical deconstruction, such as was hinted at by the description of Mr Benedict Andrew’s recent German production in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article – Elissa Blake). This production just feels undercooked. What it lacks is courage from all the company. (Exclude the Costume Design.) It lacks a close reading of Mr Williams instructions. Instructions not only, but importantly, in his production descriptions, but even in the cry of his major character, Blanche: "I don’t want realism, I want magic." I WANT MAGIC. It is instructive to read the program notes of the Lighting Designer (Nick Schlieper) and Sound Designer (Paul Charlier) and see the surreal use of these voices that Mr Williams was striving for (even with the relative primitiveness of the equipment available in 1947). The play as envisaged by Mr Williams yearns to break the naturalistic mode of the type of playing and production of the theatre of its time. (As did Arthur Miller in his creation DEATH OF A SALESMAN). But both plays have often been lumbered with a "period naturalism" too often. So here. If Mr Schlieper and Mr Charlier had followed even more precipitously Mr Williams desire, What Dali images could have been wrought to support Blanche’s visions in the last scene? What more subjective/psychological support could the Sound have given to the experience of the play? (The sound design for me was to often, for me, merely, a compendium of music of the period, rather than an integral sound/voice of the play.)
A very interesting essay: SUBSEQUENT PERFORMANCES by Dr Jonathan Miller, poses the question on how to approach the great classics of the theatre as if they were newly written. How to look at them with new eyes, without the burden of the history of other productions and performances. Simon McBurney in a recent interview in the American Theatre magazine (Carol Rocamora. Dec. 08), talking about his recent production of ALL MY SONS in New York, instructs about the need to read closely the instructions of the writer. In the reading of Mr Miller’s instructions, McBurney found the keys to the Geek scale of the piece, releasing it from the naturalistic readings of the past. Read Mr Williams’ instructions closer and this play, A STREEETCAR NAMED DESIRE, this production, could be released from the shackles of a performance style that is mostly anchored about the past, into what is possible for today, to give us the full affect of the writer’s conception in 2009.
Then he talks about "reality in the theatre is created by actors" by the scale of the imaginary conception and execution by the actor. He talks of the highly stylized form of Kabuki Theatre and its ability to move an audience, as one, to move it to a moment of communal weeping. "The emotion of the moment is real, - it’s heightened, it’s extreme, but it is completely real. Reality in the theatre is created by actors, and it occurs only at that moment – which is why you will find actors saying “we had a good night” or “oh, tonight wasn’t so good.” What actors really mean is that they have found that point of communication, so you can have a great production and you can see it and it won’t mean anything to you at all if this moment of connection between and actors and audience doesn’t happen.” The communication each night between the actor and the audience, different each night, is what makes theatre and distinguishes it from film and video. It is the courage to take the audience on a new journey rather than a familiar one. It is possible with the great plays. The great plays are timeless and have the movement in them to infinite choices. (Some more than others, of course.) This production has a leader in the vision and performance possibilities exampled by Ms Blanchett but there is a hesitancy from all of the others. Ms Ullmann fails to urge the whole company to follow the leader.
On the two performances I have attended, at the curtain call, many of the audience have been moved to give the company a standing ovation. For me it suggests, no matter my carping, that this production has created a great theatrical event for those there. “It’s the audience who creates theatre. It’s an imaginative act on the part of the audience. And that is theatre’s appeal, and that’s why theatre continues..... So in the theatre, what (one does) is to create the language to communicate with the audience on that night in that moment.” (– Mr McBurney.) This witnessed response is in stark contrast to the general reaction of the audience, I attended with, at say, THE WAR OF THE ROSES, earlier in the year - flight by many throughout the performance – no waiting, even politely, for the ending. Certainly, there was ovation from some of us as well for THE WAR OF THE ROSES, but it had not found the universal language to communicate with all of the audience on that night, no matter what the critic awards tell us.
The Sydney Theatre Company in announcing it’s 2010 Season includes many Classics and seems to recognise the needs of its audiences. The right language will be found to communicate these, I hope, and the movement into a contemporary expression of these chosen plays will be found for All the audience and critics alike. All it requires is a close and respectful reading of these mostly great writers: O’Neil; Wilder; Shepard; Chekhov, for instance. All it takes is courage and the recognition of leadership. And RESPECT for the writer. The centre, the causal of all the ingenious energy that creates a theatre experience.
This season is sold out, but go to the theatre and see what may become possible – the magic of returns etc.
Playing now until 17 October.
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