'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Cate Blanchett takes to the stage as Blanche DuBois.

With Liv Ullmann at the helm as director, the Sydney Theater Company’s enthralling production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” looks set to be an Antipodean hit and is on track to repeat similar acclaim as it travels to Washington, D.C., and New York later this year. The announcement that STC co-artistic director Cate Blanchett would play Blanche DuBois enraptured Sydney’s theater set, and the consummate thesp fulfills her promise to strap auds into an emotional roller coaster. A strong ensemble not only supports Blanchett but also gives more heft to roles that are sometimes obscured by the power of Blanche and Stanley.

The set is not the open courtyard so often used in “Streetcar” stagings. The staircase has no ornate latticework — it’s just a bare fire escape attached to a tenement. Except for a single window into the neighbors’ first-floor apartment, the upper section of the building is a dour panorama of gray blocks heavily weighing on the Kowalski apartment beneath.

Favoring Blanche, the production begins with her breathless in a tiny stage-left spotlight, sitting on her suitcase, wearing heavy makeup. As expected, Blanchett serves up the well-worn dialogue with amusing and frightening exactitude. But by intermission, one wonders whether the actress has assumed the role prematurely. Is she simply still too beautiful to convince as a faded flower?

Later, as the affected Southern belle unravels, a perfect blend of performance and lighting comes into play. Blanchett’s Blanche has fooled the audience as completely as the character has seduced numerous suitors. From the moment Stanley (Joel Edgerton) presents Blanche with a bus ticket out of town, Nick Schlieper’s lighting expertly increases in harshness. Incrementally, Blanchett appears to channel a woman five, then ten, then even 15 years older. All doubts about her aptness for the role are dismissed.

Blanche says, “Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable.” But is any role crueler than Stanley Kowalski? Sixty years on, it still bears the Brando imprint and no actor seems capable of removing it.

A thesp whose resume stretches across Australian indie film to “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” Edgerton embodies the brutish physicality Stanley requires. But he also convincingly reveals the childish insecurities of a man who requires violence to win the arguments he cannot bear to lose. Childishness also manifests in alternately coy and aggressive flirtations. But unlike a Hollywood star’s need for love, Edgerton’s lewdness eventually bleeds Stanley of audience sympathy. As Blanche is taken away, his Stanley obscenely rolls his tongue, like a rapist’s triumphant leer.

Such actions highlight Ullmann’s strategic use of the stage like an anamorphic movie screen. Characters often talk across the expanse, deliberately playing upon audience anxiety that, as they focus on one character, they may miss a vital aspect of another.

Robin McLeavy impresses as Stella. While Blanche makes a seductive game of keeping her knees together, Stella’s earthy appetites are emphasized by the opposite. McLeavy projects a fleshy, cavalier openness that is shamelessly relaxed.

Tim Richards’ Mitch catches the essence of a boy in a man’s body (far softer than Stanley’s inner child). His final frustration with Blanche may manifest itself as genuine rage (though no contest for Blanche’s admonishment), but the production also uncovers Mitch’s genuine guilt and grief over love lost. The effect is deeper here because rather than being eclipsed by Blanche’s fate, Mitch’s pain echoes it.

The text has been judiciously trimmed, but smart embellishments abound. Thesps subtly connect with props to accentuate the text (for instance, Blanche exclaims that she needs to “rest” while leaning heavily on a bottle). The repetition by neighbor Eunice (Mandy McElhinney) of the epitaph “goat” underlines Stanley’s Pan-like lust, and the extended presence of the Mexican flower seller (Gertraud Ingeborg) suggests just one of Blanche’s possible fates.

Ullmann’s presentation is rich with new possibilities for these characters. But most of their options appear grim, offering no comfort.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Sydney Theater, Sydney; 873 Seats; AUS$90 $75 U.S. top

Production

A Sydney Theater Company, UBS Investment Bank presentation of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams. Directed by Liv Ullmann.

Creative

Sets, Ralph Myers; costumes, Tess Schofield; lighting, Nick Schlieper; sound, Paul Charlier; production stage manager, Annie Eves-Boland. Opened, reviewed, Sept. 5, 2009. Running time: 3 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

Blanche DuBois - Cate Blanchett Stanley Kowalski - Joel Edgerton Stella Kowalski - Robin McLeavy Mitch - Tim Richards Eunice Hubbel - Mandy McElhinney Steve Hubbel - Michael Denkha Young Collector - Morgan David Jones Doctor - Russell Kiefel Nurse - Elaine Hudson Mexican Woman - Gertraud Ingeborg

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