It’s a cold, windy night in Hickson Street as the capacity audience spills out from a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Liv Ullman for Sydney Theatre Company. My friend and I want to find a café and a drink, somewhere to escape the wind, and to debrief the past 3 + hours. We’re in no doubt that we’ve seen a superb performance by Cate Blanchett in one of the great roles of the 20th century theatre. Her Blanche Dubois is achingly sad, the performance as finely wrought moment by moment across its arc as you could wish for. On another note, we’re also in awe of the actor’s stamina; she’s done two performances today and eight over the week, and we hope she gets to sleep in the next (Sunday) morning. Somehow though, I’ve been moved rather less by the production of Tennessee Williams’ tragedy of lives wrecked by stupidity and ignorance, than by a truly momentous performance. In many ways it has burst the bounds of the play, and I’m both thrilled by it and unsure how to call the outcome.
To start, there’s no doubt that STC’s … Streetcar … is a fine production, and a good-looking one. Designers Ralph Myers (set) and Tess Schofield (costume) capture the late 1940s in which the play is set: the low-ceilinged claustrophobia of Stella and Stanley’s grimy and oppressive basement apartment in New Orleans; the refined poverty of Blanche’s costume pieces; the work clothes of the men. Sound designer Paul Charlier mixes live and recorded environmental effects: voices raised in anger, furniture smashing, the sound of the streetcar and trains passing in the immediate neighbourhood of the French Quarter, but above all it’s the music, Blanche and Stella’s genteel classics played on a rickety turntable, and trouble-and-sorrow blues that provides the atmosphere for Williams’ poetic-realism. A far off jazz trumpet and a live piano that jangles and soothes in turn track the action, and reflect the internal turmoil of the building’s inhabitants.
Light, as designer Nick Schlieper points out in the programme note, is a critical metaphoric device in the play; Williams’ text keeps returning to it as Blanche retreats further into the shadows and out of the light away from reality and sanity. She papers over the naked lightbulbs with gaudy lanterns, and denies her own reflection in the mirrors of the tenement apartment. Williams’ first title for the play was The Moth. The first vision he might have had of a fragile creature that beats itself to pieces trying to escape is for me the iconic metaphor for this production. It’s bookended by the first appearance of Blanche and the last image in the play, and interpreted brilliantly in Schlieper’s lighting.
Blanchett appears for the first time at the top of the play in light, summery colours, still and impeccably groomed in a white glow at the downstage left proscenium arch, and separate from the more colourful and robust action on the stairs of the tenement apartment on the opposite side of the stage. She’s flooded with open white light, like a forensic specimen. During the play’s action Blanchett is often key-lit from the waist up, creating the appearance of floating, and apparently disembodied from the world about her. She moves superbly by the way – her physicality fluid and expressive. In the play’s final moments, her hair awry, barefoot, stripped to a slip, genteel trappings and sanity torn away, and blinking in the harsh light of reality, she staggers her way back across the stage, where once again, the light captures her and pins her down. The use of light in this production is just wonderful.
Whilst Ullman’s production is undoubtedly a fine one, it is dominated, and perhaps it shouldn’t be, by the truly overwhelming presence of an actor at the top of her game. Is this a bad thing? Well not necessarily, but it does open up a whole raft of questions about balance and scale in a production, as well as the power of the actor’s presence. It was the aura surrounding Blanchett, that invisible baggage which starpower brings to the work, which has affected my reaction, and which has been niggling away at my thinking about the production as a whole.
On screen an actor’s physical size and energy can be controlled, confined, scaled, and framed. On stage there is no such possibility; there is the anarchic freedom of choosing where to look at any given time. Short of turning out the lights on an actor, the audience has an unmediated freedom that cinema does not possess. On stage there is the totality of the actor; beat by beat, gesture by gesture, line by line, and inflection by inflection the actor’s art unfolds on the eye, ear, and imagination of the audience. In this production there are fade-outs between scenes with enough light to allow the actors to remove props, add costume pieces, strip the set. No stage technicians needed here – Blanchett darts on her toes from one part of the stage to the other, morphing from actor to character and back again. Of course, this is part of what makes a live performance so thrilling. You get to experience a vital imagination and artistic energy at work in an actor’s presence on stage, and it’s different at each performance. I must confess I found it difficult to take my eyes away from Cate Blanchett whose performance as Blanche Dubois will perhaps be seen as one of the defining interpretations of the role.
So I suspect some of my reservations have to do with the magnetism of the actor’s persona, and the way it works upon the audience’s expectations. For a start Blanchett’s major awards fill two-thirds of the allocated column space in the programme notes; you can’t help being aware of her artistic success. She steps onto a stage, and we project our desires or create an aura around her based on our recollection of previous roles; we create the persona, and this inevitably affects our reception of a performance. And then there are the ghosts of Blanches and Stanleys past; comparisons are perhaps odious, but they are inevitable, especially when dealing with the great roles interpreted by great performers. I couldn’t help but think of Viven Leigh’s delicacy in contrast to Blanchett’s ranginess, or of Marlon Brando’s size and hulking menace and the way his presence contrasted with Joel Edgerton’s smaller physicality, and more intelligent and vulnerable Stanley. I’d really love the chance to see it again to rid myself of these lingering reservations and see the play as a whole. Is it going to happen for the hottest ticket in town? Chance would be a fine thing!