A Pulitzer Prize winning play performed by Sydney’s most well regarded theatre company starring an Oscar winner – it was always going to be one of the most anticipated theatre openings on the Sydney calendar. Fortunately Liv Ullmann’s Sydney Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire doesn’t disappoint.
Seeing this production reminds us why Tennessee William’s play is studied in drama schools across the globe and is considered to be a classic. Its themes are timeless and the characters are incredibly complex and fascinating. As Tennessee himself said, “there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Some are a little better or a little worse but all are activated more by misunderstanding than by malice”. It is this understanding of the human psyche that makes this play such a fascinating journey.
Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1940s, we’re immediately drawn into the bustling community. Men and women mill around, calling out to each other and trading intimacies. Set designer Ralph Myers makes use of height at Sydney Theatre by building the apartment block, complete with rustic iron stairs and a convenient viewing window into a neighbour’s flat. Although most of the action takes place in the ground level apartment, this vertical stage demonstrates how tiny their living spaces are and how communal life is.
In complete contrast to this vibrant community is Cate Blanchett’s Blanche DuBois, an ethereal, fading beauty who arrives to visit her sister Stella (Robin McLeavy). Despite their similar Mississippi accents and upper class upbringings, the sisters couldn’t be less alike. Blanche seems to represent class and sophistication whereas Stella has left her airs and graces behind and has fallen in love with auto-parts salesman Stanley Kowalski (Joel Edgerton). Their lives are raw and passionate, fighting one minute and love making the next, all too hard to understand for fraught and fragile Blanche.
Lasting almost 3 and a half hours, this play is like a deep southern accent – lingering, complex yet utterly beguiling. All of the main actors play their parts with complete conviction. Edgerton’s rugged good looks and chiselled physique is perfectly suited to the part of Stanley. This brutish character believes himself to be the king of his domain who takes on everything with full force.
In contrast is sweet, slightly naïve Stella, who is both passionately in love with Stanley but also scared of the control he has over her. McLeavy’s portrayal shows the power of a violent relationship, how a woman can return again and again to a man who demeans and abuses yet professes love and adoration.
However the shining star of the production is Cate Blanchett. From prim and proper to confused and belittled, she plays each transition of this woman’s downfall with understanding and aplomb. It literally feels as though she is embodying Blanche, and at the end of the production Blanchett looks so startled you see how much emotion she invests into this absorbing character.
Despite the violence and conflict in this show, it’s impossible to lay blame or judgment on any individual character. Ullmann’s tightly choreographed production shows us that black or white is far too simplistic; the lives of real people are always in shades of grey.
As the production draws to a close and Blanche utters those immortal words: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” those of us lucky enough to have gained a ticket for this show feel as though we’ve witnessed a truly great piece of theatre.
Until 17 October, 2009