Joel Edgerton as Stanley Kowalski – wonderful. Excellent. Dynamic.
The rest of the production – eh.
A Streetcar Named Desire is, at bottom, an American potboiler, but what a pot! And what boiling! Tennessee Williams’ story about a sister-in-law who came to visit and stayed too long and paid for it is also a metaphor for the intersection between the ways of pre-war America – genteel, status-bound, enslaved by convention and unspoken rules – and what William believed America had become: a loud, vulgar, grasping society whose denizens said what they wanted and took what they wanted regardless of whether or not they were entitled to it. Williams personified this distinction not only in Blanche and Stanley but in Blanche’s Mississippi home (which, by her description, has all the charm of a decaying corpse) and the New Orleans in which the play is set. New Orleans, in Williams’ telling of it, is a city of loud noises and unpredictable thunderstorms, where people shout and curse and sweat freely and make love passionately, and music starts up from nowhere and ends suddenly.
I do not for an instant suggest that Blanchett’s Australian Sidney Theatre Company or Liv Ullman, its Norwegian director cannot understand or reproduce this quintessentially American play – just that they have not done it here, not fully, not convincingly. It is as though a gifted artist had painted a landscape which had been described to him over the telephone by someone who was actually looking at it. It has all the required elements, but not the patina of authenticity.
We can start with Ralph Myers’ two-room set, painted the color of lobster bisque. We understand that Stanley and Stella live in two rooms, and that their social and economic condition is far below what Blanche expects. But Myers has put them in a shack, with a bed too small for two people, and kitchen chairs so cheap and tiny that no one could sit on them for very long, and a bathroom door which seems to have been torn from an outhouse. It is a harbinger.
Or what about Stella Kowalski (Robin McLeavy)? Williams makes her the moral and emotional center of the story, a woman who loves the two antagonists and is willing to serve as their translator and intermediary. But McLeavy never seems to find the moral or emotional center of her character, and Stella moves from anger to laughter to weeping as suddenly as the rainclouds open in the New Orleans sky. Thus she becomes a plot device, rather than the full character she was meant to be.
The same is true of other supporting characters, with three exceptions I’ll discuss later. The laughter between Rosetta (Sara Zwangobani) and Eunice (Mandy McElhinney) which opens the play seems forced and theatrical, and it appears that the men in the first act poker game among Stanley, Mitch (Tim Richards), Steve (Michael Denkha) and Pablo (Jason Klawein) all hate to play cards. Mitch, whose attraction to Blanche is crucial in bringing about her ultimate fate, is a disappointment here. In a role which won Karl Malden an Oscar, Richards is bland and a bit pompous, showing little of the tenderness which would otherwise make us, if only for a brief moment, think yes, he might be able to save her life. By way of further distraction, Richards has no discernable Southern accent. I recognize that a full New Orleans dialect would make the play difficult to understand, but this Mitch sounds like he might have come from New York, or even Australia.
Director Liv Ullmann (yes, that Liv Ullmann) makes a couple of inexplicable choices, including parking the flower woman (Gertraud Ingeborg, who has a beautiful voice) on the fire escape steps for much of the scene in which Blanche describes the horrifying last days of Belle Reve to Mitch. This scene, done after Blanche’s big reveal, is one of the spookiest and most powerful in the play, but it is hard not to be distracted by someone sitting on the steps for no reason with a basket of flowers. Nor do I understand why she permitted Myers to put a window and a screen door on the back wall of the set if lighting designer Nick Schlieper wasn’t going to illuminate them. In the morning after Stanley and Stella have makeup sex, light streams in the window over their bed, but the back window and door remain so dark they might as well be facing outer space.
And for the life of us, why would Stella and her friends permit Blanche, in the final scene, to wander out of the house barefoot and wearing nothing more than a slip covered with a shawl? This is particularly curious in light of Blanchett’s remark, in this interesting interview with Peter Marks, that Blanche is not mad. Where I come from, walking around the streets of New Orleans in your underwear is evidence that you are pretty disturbed.
I realize that this run has sold out. So am I suggesting that, if you’ve bought your tickets, you should try to get your money back? God, no! The essence of this play is the dynamic between Blanche and Stanley, and in this, the play excels. Blanchett is superb – every bit the wonder as a stage actor that she is as an Oscar winning movie star. As Blanche, her skin seems to crawls with anxiety, and every time she utters one of her flagrant lies – and she utters them often – it seems like she’s affirming her own personality. Her movements are as compulsive, and convulsive, as the quick slugs of Stanley’s liquor she sneaks when no one is looking. She makes her horrible decisions on impulse, and moments later you can see the terror and despair in Blanchett’s eyes as Blanche apprehends the consequences of what she has done. Indeed, she carries the whiff of doom from the play’s very first moment, when she realizes that Stella’s financial and social circumstances were not nearly as high as Blanche had come to believe. She knows, at that moment, as we do not until later on, that she is shipwrecked before she sets sail.
As for Edgerton, it appears at times that he is channeling Brando. (The rule against derivative performances does not apply when the model is Marlon Brando). He is the mongoose to Blanche’s fading cobra, and Edgerton brings a gleeful feral energy to the task of bringing her down. He fully embraces Stanley’s aggressive sexuality, and every time he rips off his shirt (which is often) revealing his admirable six pack, you can tell that he believes that he is making himself irresistible to Blanche. The final fatal encounter between Stanley and Blanche thus carries the aspects of a prison rape, where lust combines with dominance, and proclaims the triumph of the new vices (brutality, misogyny, drunkenness) over the old (lying, pedophilia, racial bigotry, homophobia, ethnic bigotry and drunkenness).
I cannot close this review without acknowledging three fine performances in supporting roles. As the young man who tries to collect for the Evening Star and collects Blanche’s attention instead, Morgan David Jones gives us a nice mix of puzzlement, fear and desire which lets us know how Blanche’s male students must have felt in her presence. And as the doctor and nurse who come to collect Blanche at the end – the strangers upon whose kindness Blanche depends – Elaine Hudson and Russell Kiefel radiate a self-confidence and professionalism which allows us, briefly, to step back from the steamy, self-enclosed world of Stanley, Stella and Blanche and look at the wider universe, which is run by people who are in control of themselves. When the doctor stares Stanley down in the play’s final moments we get a sense of what real power it is, and how easily it falls on the shoulders of those who wear it.
A Streetcar Named Desire
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Liv Ullmann
Produced by the Sydney Theatre Company at the Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE