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Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire

Written by Nic Connaughton on 12th September, 2009

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A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Liv Ullmann
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Joel Edgerton, Robin McLeavy, Tim Richards.

It’s fitting that Tennessee Williams was originally to title his seminal 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire ‘The Moth’, for that’s where the iconic Liv Ullmanns new production begins. As the light rises on the Sydney Theatre Company stage, Cate Blanchett as wilting southern belle Blanche DuBois, is sitting at the side of the stage and touching up her makeup and in the full glare of a large hot spotlight. Like a moth to a flame, that’s where Blanchett’s DuBois will stay for the remainder of the evening.

Perhaps most famous as the vehicle to launch Marlon Brando into the acting stratosphere, A Streetcar Named Desire is the story of Blanche Du Bois, an aging Southern Belle who comes to stay with her younger sister Stella and her Polish working class husband Stanley in New Orleans after losing the family home Belle Rive to a combination of death and bad debt. Finding Stella to be living well below the standard in which they were both raised but with no where else to go, Blanche commits to staying for what will be the defining two weeks of her life.

Evoking the smoldering atmosphere of New Orleans, the pared down but imposing set and juke box jazz musical accompaniment transform the barn like main stage into a hothouse of sexual tension, miscommunication, violence and seduction. As Blanche, Cate Blanchett flitters and swoons across the stage, propping up her delusions of grandeur with a serious drinking habit. After initially appearing to have pitched her performance to the rafters and much like a moth, Blanchett’s overly contrived artifice slowly begins to disintegrate and out emerges a deeply layered portrayal of women trying to survive by whatever means necessary. Armed only with the skills her physical beauty attributed her, watching Blanche struggle to keep a grip on her social standing whilst simultaneously provide for herself is devastatingly powerful.

Joel Edgerton takes on the iconic role of Stanley Kowalski with an unbridled sense of masculine bravado. He is a like a bull let off the chain and stalks the stage, only stopping to mark out his territory in the face of Blanche’s bourgeois incursion. He is her antithesis, and provides a raw sexual presence to rival Brando.  Underpinning all this is Robin McLeavy’s sensitive turn in the underappreciated and difficult role of Stella. Torn between an almost animalistic magnetism to Stanley and the love for her sister, whose very presence reminds her of the grandeur of her former life, this Stella is a rag doll getting torn helplessly asunder as the two opposing forces in her life battle for supremacy.  In many ways her performance best personifies the influence of the legendary Liv Ullmann, known for her long time collaboration as actor and director with the master of the intimate and interior, Ingmar Bergman.

This Streetcar is suitably dramatic, bitterly melancholic and subtly majestic, firing on all four cylinders. Under such astute direction this talented cast are given space to fully embody these legendary characters and bring an old Hollywood feel to the Sydney Theatre Company, befitting of Broadway or London’s West End. It’s top gear theatre.

You will love this if: you are longing for a bittersweet hit from an old favourite.
You will hate this if: you are too young to understand nostalgia.

A Streetcar Named Desire is playing at Sydney Theatre (Hickson Road, Walsh Bay) until the 17th of October.

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