A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, has been prolifically performed since its premiere in 1947 and is perhaps one of the best-known plays of the twentieth century. The play received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1948 and has showcased stars like Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh and director Lawrence Olivier, and more recently Alec Baldwin, Rachel Weisz and Cate Blanchett in various productions worldwide.
Polish avant-garde director Krzysztof Warlikowski has brought a touring production of A Streetcar to Australia, and last night audiences at The Adelaide Festival Theatre witnessed the Australian premiere of the racy, modern and eccentric adaptation of the classic American play. In its 2010 debut season A Streetcar divided Parisian audiences – it’s unlikely that audiences of The Adelaide Festival will be so equally divided, with a host of technical issues marring an already difficult night at the theatre.
Firstly, the production is in French with subtitles. Unfortunately for all, the subtitle delivery is atrocious. When they appeared at all, they rarely corresponded to the line most recently delivered – so while the actors were pouring emotion into their delivery, the audience was three thoughts back and thoroughly confused.
Secondly, the screens for the subtitles were poorly positioned. With a central screen well above the stage and two on either side, the audience is forced to choose to either read the subtitles or watch the action. With the aforementioned comical-cum-frustrating subtitle debacle, the best option is to attempt to interpret the actions of the cast with occasional glimpses at the subtitles. For an audience member with limited or no knowledge of A Streetcar Named Desire this would be an exhausting prospect.
Thirdly, the show is too long. Two and a half hours without an intermission is a very long time to concentrate on French, let alone considering the emotional, brutal and occasionally confronting content of the show. Scatterings of audience members were excusing themselves throughout the production, and I fear numbers may have dwindled further had there been an intermission.
Finally, the musical numbers interspersed seemed to thoroughly confuse the audience – however it often did provide a brief reprieve, with Eunice (Renate Jett) performing Common People and All By Myself.
That said, there were some amazing positives. The set design by Małgorzata Szczęśniak is delightfully innovative and is complimented by Jean-Lewis Imbert’s sound. The wide and translucent stage is without intimacy and the bowling alley of glass cubes facilitates screens for close-up of the actors’ faces. Director Krzysztof Warlikowski’s unique use of multimedia provided a heightened and more personally intense interpretation of the onstage action – that of home video or YouTube clip. While the technique was innovative, it was perhaps over utilised when combined with music, action and subtitles, occasionally detracting from the onstage action.
The cast, led by French film heavyweight Isabelle Huppert as Blanche, performed admirably despite trying technical conditions. The subtitle confusions hinder in-depth character analysis, however each appeared to pour every ounce of emotion into their performance – Stanley (Andrzej Chyra), Stella (Florence Thomassin) and Mitch (Yann Collette).
The first twenty minutes, which included Blanche’s famous “they told me to take a streetcar named Desire” monologue, are exciting. Huppert, writhing and convulsing like a junkie, sets the emotional platform very high indeed. Unfortunately, the following 130 minutes are busy, confusing and chaotic with little light to offset the shade.
The Adelaide Festival’s production of A Streetcar adheres precisely to its mission statement: “presenting a unique arts experience that demonstrates artistic integrity”. For an international touring production where ticket prices range from $30 – $130, I expect technical issues not to disrupt the night. Even if sorted out for subsequent performances, A Streetcar remains a challenging prospect for Australian audiences. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but nothing beats the original.
Warning: moderate violence and full-frontal nudity.