It’s Saturday night and all the stars are out and suitably shining. It could easily be the red carpet at the latest Hollywood premiere – because that’s the buzz - but it’s actually something much better. It’s blockbuster theatre! Forget about CGI, there’s been no countless millions squandered on mythical creatures to get bums on seats here. Instead, the Sydney Theatre Company has the essence of magic itself, a world-class performer, in the shape of their captivating co-artistic director Cate Blanchett, an outstanding local cast, and a dazzling international director, the enigmatic Liv Ullmann.
Now, you might say there’s been a hefty dose of hype injected into the proceedings. There are t-shirts, posters, and even a tiny commemorative “Desire” tram (which lends the play its title) on sale. But none of these trashy trinkets, nor the headlines about Blanchett’s unfortunate injury during the preview caused by a flying radio can detract from the power of this dream production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
For those unfamiliar with Tennessee Williams play or Elia Kazan’s iconic 1951 film featuring Marlon Brando, the action centres on a troubled thirty-something Mississippi schoolteacher, Blanche DuBois, who comes to New Orleans to visit her younger sister Stella and meet her new husband Stanley. To Blanche’s horror she finds Stella living in a dilapidated tenement building with a man she perceives as a rough, brutish “polak” (of Polish descent) well beneath Stella’s station in both manners and prospects. What ensues is a battle of wills between Blanche and Stanley as each attempts to stubbornly assert their authority over the other, while Blanche spectacularly unravels in the process. It’s a play that’s brimming with both insightful wit and desperate sadness as Williams expertly straddles the polarities of human experience with the kind of emotional intelligence that’s timeless.
Cate Blanchett glides and flutters as Blanche, Tennessee Williams’ “moth”, and we are drawn to her as if to a flame. When she first appears on stage dressed in the divine white floaty two piece by designer Tess Scofield we instantly perceive both her power and her vulnerability. It’s this paradox of lightness and strength that Blanchett wields so well, and it’s what allows her to make Blanche’s neurotic and gut-wrenching emotional transition as smooth as silk. But she’s also incredibly funny, executing Williams’ clever lines with the skill of a comedian. As far as parts go, this is one of the great roles of the twentieth century, and Blanchett turns in nothing less than a five-star performance, the intensity and focus of which is flawless.
Of course there is another commanding role on offer here in the guise of Stanley, and with Brando’s breakout role seemingly unsurpassable it was with much expectation that I waited to see Joel Edgerton’s take on it. In between rehearsals Edgerton has clearly put in some serious gym time to bulk up for the part, and embodies the requisite beefy and “ape-like” physicality, but the real craft is in the way he moves as Stanley. He’s much more than a clumsy primate, instead he’s a muscular panther who’s ready to pounce. He also seems, dare I say it, more psychologically engaged than Brando, and imbues Stanley with the shrewd skills of a cunning manipulator who knows exactly how and when to apply the pressure.
Together, Edgerton and Blanchett are enthralling. And while Stella (Robin McLeavy) often seems to blend into the background, in a sense that’s her role. She’s not there to steal the spotlight, she’s merely a tool for both of them to bat back and forth in a relentless game of cat and mouse.
The supporting cast are equally skilled. Most notably Tim Richards as the lonesome bachelor Mitch, who finds himself irresistibly falling for the calculated charms of Blanche; and Mandy McElhinney is charming too as the loud-mouthed upstairs neighbour Eunice.
Director Ullmann has channelled the spirit of Williams’ vision with a remarkable sensitivity to the huge range of emotions at play. There are moments of sublime humour, but she also understands the very real and heart-wrenching pain too. And there’s a mix of styles brewed into a delicious concoction of theatricality and refreshing naturalism that gets the balance just right.
Ralph Myers pink, mould-stained set is nicely complimented by Nick Schlieper’s beautifully nuanced lighting, while Alan John’s piano playing give the proceedings the required rag-tag New Orleans feel.
I must say I really did try not to gush, but with a production this good that’s almost impossible as A Streetcar Named Desire is without a doubt the best production that I’ve seen all year, and theatregoers should beg borrow or steal their way into it. Just see it, any way you can!
Sydney Theatre Company presents
A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Director Liv Ullmann
Venue: Sydney Theatre
Previews: 1-4 September 8pm
Season: 5 September - 17 October
Duration: 3 hours 15 mins including interval
Bookings: STC Box Office 02 9250 1777 | www.sydneytheatre.com.au