Monday 31 August 2009

On A Streetcar Named Desire @ STC

Tennessee Williams, Liv Ullman and Cate Blanchett. It's a recipe for gushy advertorial.

The Sydney Theatre Company have produced a starry version of Tennessee Williams's 'A Streetcar Named Desire' that comes rich in association and borrowed gravitas, but it is also sadly lacking in the crackle and ache that can make the play so great. Given the heat and noise, if not light, around this production that feels like a badly missed opportunity.

The New Orleans set is in the mode of naturalist-monumental, a slab of dark plaster weighs heavy over a strip of apartment like a storm cloud gathering. The symbolism is heavy but the topography of the stage really presents a problem. The action is stretched out along a thin cinemascope envelope of rundown apartment which places vast amounts of space between characters in a piece that explores what happens when they rub together. This diminishes the pressure cooker of history and emotion, people speak twenty feet away from one another, it's no wonder that their delivery is shouty and actorly, they might never hear one another otherwise.

Heat is absent here, as a by-product of friction one would imagine the stage on fire, particularly when the temperature is spoken of so often. There is a real lack of sweat, no veil of humidity that hangs in the air, it might be a warm day in Brooklyn. That climatic specificity isn't irrelevant, Blanche's delusion comes out of the South, the certainties of plantation life, of long gloves and mint juleps, exchanged for the market place of muscle and desire. Perhaps the real lack is of sweat as a fluid human response in a bizarrely unsexy performance. There's little chemistry here, the antagonisms around class or manners or bathroom tenure seem just that prosaic, there's no hint of sexual tension, no confused desire or erotic need. It makes for an oddly frigid type of desire

Joel Edgerton's Stanley lacks the feral muscularity it requires. In a play where class is one of the intertwining tracks the shape of Stanley is important, he is a working man. Edgerton is beefcake, his body a solid slab constructed for the gaze in a gym not from dynamic graft, he lacks motion or the potential for it and that denudes him of any sense of explosive threat. The ties that ought to bind in the play are between Stanley and Stella. Robin McLeavy might deliver the most rounded performance as Blanche's fleshier little sister, but she ends up looking oddly dislocated, a small island of nicely modulated and downplayed sanity amidst so much mugging.

I know that Cate Blanchett is practically a secular saint in Australia but that ought not blind us to what actually happens when she's onstage. Blanche is a pretty standard jumble of postbellum ladylike affectation, which can occasionally make it feel like we're watching a drag act. It doesn't serve the play well, even though it is possible to make a case for Blanche delivering lines with the flutter of hand on chest or over-enunciated sincerity when she is, after all, delusional. All these are a particular type of clichés, they're stage clichés and that's a very clumsy and convenient shorthand for Blanche's precarious affliction. Subsequently the monologue to Mitch, where she reveals the psychic degradation from which she attempts to shield herself, feels less like a catharsis or revelation than a piece of narcissistic special pleading. The swoons and flutters and gestures scream of a self-conscious craft, there's a direct line that goes back to people like Laurence Olivier, a kind of 'Look at me, I'm acting' acting. Maybe that's why she holds a high place in middlebrow hearts, she fulfills a desire for a very properly English type of Australian actor.

Something has killed the pace in Streetcar. It's not just that it's slow, although it is slow, really slow. All music and rhythm has been squeezed from the text as a single vocal characteristic, the impersonated Southern drawl (although Edgerton places his accent closer to Tony Soprano), takes precedence. The problem though is not slowness, it is the lack of variety in pace. Action and emotion can be signified by a means other than volume, here they are not. Pace requires a continuum, a scale that can be navigated, here the director gives us a series of binaries: loud or quiet, arch or histrionic, black or white. It's no wonder the direction feels leaden and lacks the subtlety required to deliver emotional complexity and subsequent satisfaction.

The idea behind any revival is that it might shed new light or benefit from the new light shed upon it. I wish this Streetcar had. It is a play pregnant with potential meaning, Blanche's sexualized delusion reminds one of something of the desperate battle between public and private hedonism and morality, Stanley and Stella's messy mutual need always aches away familiarly and the fragility of an individual in a time that isn't their own will always ring bells. Those facets, and so many others as yet uncut, are all aching and ambiguous things, they require a light touch and held breath to give them a chance to bloom in front of an audience.

And so the performance meanders slowly, heavy handedly and predictably to its climax of rape, breakdown and institutionalization. By this time it feels like going through the motions, lights get darker and shouts get louder because that's what people do when they're supposed to demonstrate extreme emotion. In the end it's all a bit simple minded and embarrassing, a streetcar named panto, and that can never be very good.

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