• 11 Sep 2009 /  Reviews, Videos 62 Comments

    xx

    “I don’t want realism. I want magic.”

    Blanche DuBois

    I hope I am the only person who feels this way for the sake of the STC, and all involved in A Streetcar Named Desire: but I thought this to be one of the most unimaginatively directed productions I have ever seen. So Liv Ullmann is one of the greatest screen actresses off our time – and indeed I genuflect to her work in so many truly great films, especially those several masterpieces by Ingmar Bergman. She has also directed for the screen and performed on stage in a number of celebrated roles including two Ibsen classics – Nora in A Doll House (1975) and Mrs Alving in Ghosts (1982); and even as Mother Courage (1986). But, so far as I can ascertain, she has never directed for the stage – and it shows.

    Liv

    Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergmann's Persona (1966)

    We are not talking about a director of no experience in the arts, but I feel nervous in advance for the cast arriving in the United States (Washington DC and New York) in a few months time. Because this production is simply not radical or viruosic enough to merit the attention of a discerning  overseas audience. In the tradition of coals to Newcastle, I remember the folly of taking Poppy, Graeme Murphy’s silly Sydney Dance Company homage to Jean Cocteau, to Europe and everyone  (but me) being shocked at the critical caning. Goddam if only we had been able to tour Benedict Andrews The Season at Sarsaparilla - we would be knocking people’s sox off.

    While I am as excited as anyone for STC Artistic Directors, Blanchett and Upton, to draw on their impressive international connections – both have now been burned. Because, while Blanchett is a beautiful actress in every sense of the word – and her rendition of considerable interest and high integrity – her Blanche Dubois careens the outskirts of the exoticism built into the DNA of this role. Blanchett’s performance is certainly the high point of the production (as it should be), and it commands respect: but  I cannot see how Ms Ullmann’s restrained concept for this production could have been of help to any actress taking on this hugely mythical role. Blanchett also seems to be a highly centred and sensible woman; and while this is about acting, her effort at Hedda some years back, and now Blanche call for a greater leap in imagination (from her) than than it did for the more febrile Vivien Leigh to play Blanche. Never in this performance did I feel as if Blanchett had got past the construction of her characterisation, or dropped as it were, the safety net.

    Joel

    Joel Edgerton as Stanley with his wife Stella (Robyn McLeavy): Photo Lisa Tomasetti

    A couple of historic versions of this are Debra Byrne’s opening night of Sunset Boulevard in Melbourne (now she would make a great Blanche) and Todd McKenney’s opening night in The Boy from Oz in Sydney (he would make a really lousy Stan) .

    Many people thought Upton’s play Riflemind a rather lousy play; but in my view, if not perfect, it was poorly directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Why do I say this? Because of the transformation that took place between the two performances I saw: opening and closing nights. In that time, as Hugo Weaving, who was in the cast, explained to me – the shape of the drama on stage shifted under the influence of repeated audience reaction. What initially had appeared to be a story about a rock band getting back on the road in which a rather dodgy wife drifted in and out, became a fascinating story of a marriage under threat of the prospect of the band regrouping and going back on tour. Susan Prior as the wife, whom you barely noticed first time round, had – by the end of the run – become almost the central character around which the wheel of the drama turned. Her already sensitive and nuanced performance had been allowed to grow in presence to fill the hitherto empty heart of the show.

    Tennessee Williams

    Tennessee Williams serving his public another of his taste treats!

    I was not at all surprised that the London production, also directed by Hoffmann, was so massively panned because the reviews suggested Hoffmann had pulled the production back into something like its original shape. A show about a rock band – mmmmm….one critic wanted to grab hold of one of the blades of the helicopter that lands about 20 minutes into the action and be lifted out  – a high-risk attempt to flee a theatre.

    With regard to the endeavours of the STC’s most recently imported global celebrity director – let’s first consider style. In a nutshell, Ullmann’s Streetcar is directed as if it were a play by Arthur Miller: dour, humourless social realism – not a touch of ‘fancy’ to it. I don’t doubt it is a conscious decision to take the play to another place. But in this city in 2009, it has the feel of taking our audiences back forty years.

    xx

    Joel Edgerton (Stanley) with Blanchett & McLeavy in an STC promo for the show: in retrospect we should have expected what we got: Photo @ Derek Henderson

    Initially this may sound like a minor gripe, but the production is not a bit Camp. All Tennessee Williams’s work – at core – is Camp and that is the secret to its power. Camp is a ‘pushed up’ style, where extravagant behaviour is taken seriously (utterly so) by the character/performer. This is the core observation of Susan Sontag  who wrote definitely on the subject in her essay ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964) which opens with this sentence: “Many things in the world have not been named; and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described. One of these is the sensibility – unmistakably modern, a variant of sophistication but hardly identical with it – that goes by the cult name of ‘Camp’.” It is a style that suggests superficiality of emotion, but oddly heightens and intensifies our response.

    Almodovar's All About My Mother

    Almodovar's All About My Mother

    Here is a link to the site where I found the above photo: a collection of images from famous Tennessee Williams productions on stage and screen put together by The Guardian Online -aptly titled The Drama of Desire (some gr8 pix). A good example of Camp as ‘genuine’ sensibility can be found in the films of Pedro Almodovar, whose All About my Mother (one of my favourite films) includes some scenes from a Barcelona production of A Streetcar Named Desire. I have looked on YouTube (where else?) for footage of this production, without luck. But I did find a trailer of the film that gives you some idea of the heightened style Almodovar likes to employ.

    When people talk of Camp, they often think of gay men mimicking Bette Davis smoking, for example. But it is Davis, the actress – the way Sontag would see it – who is Camp. And it is the many wonderful women characters in Almodovar’s films are Camp. The men mere foils to their Campiness. Which takes us back to Streetcar, which opened on Broadway to rave reviews in 1947. Here is an except of a review of a book recently published on various productions of Streetcar over time, which not only suggests the style deployed by director Elia Kazan – but points to its influence. (Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire, by Philip C. Kolin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.250 pp. $23.00.)

    Vivien Leigh & Marlon Brando in the 1952 Elia Kazan film

    Vivien Leigh & Marlon Brando in the 1952 Elia Kazan film

    “Kolin traces the transformations of Williams’s classic over time and place, from the famous Broadway opening in 1947 to its most recent international adaptations. He begins with a discussion of its famous premiere. According to him, it became one of the great Broadway hits of the time because of the extraordinary cooperation between producer Irene Selznick, director Elia Kazan, set designer Jo Mielziner, composer Alex North, and actors Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Karl Malden. Going against the grain of Broadway’s penchant for realistic representation, the Streetcar premiere profoundly influenced Western theater history. Just like Williams’s first play, The Glass Menagerie (1945), it presented an innovative mix of realism and fantasy, verisimilitude and theatricality–hence a challenge to both theater makers and audiences. The Broadway premiere became the blueprint of Williams’s plays, setting up the stakes for all future productions. This did not, however, mean that all successors religiously copied the original. On the contrary, already the road company set up by Selznick and Kazan modified the Broadway original. Uta Hagen’s Blanche was far more determined and self-aware than Tandy’s, while Anthony Quinn rendered a less petulant and more impulsive Stanley.”

    Here’s a selection of highlights from the film

    “…an innovative mix of realism and fantasy, verisimilitude and theatricality…” In this production we get lots of realism and almost no fantasy, lots of verisimilitude, but minimal theatricality. Every director and their actors will (thankfully) bring something different to their production of a classic. But one can fairly imagine that Vivien Leigh revealed something of herself in the first London production (directed by her husband Laurence Olivier) that appealed Kazan – apart from her superstar status – that led him to bypassing Jessica Tandy who premiered the role on Broadway for his superb 1951 screen version of the play. By way of theatre trivia, it is fascinating to discover that the London premiere was preceded by several others of considerable significance. To quote again from that book review:

    “In the second chapter, Kolin catalogues six international productions by leading theater directors: Seki Sano’s Mexico City productions with Mafia Douglas and Wolf Ruvinsky (1948); Luchino Visconti’s adaptation in Rome (1949), starring Vittorio Gassman, Rina Morelli, and Marcello Mastroianni; Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic adaptation for the Gothenburg theater with Anders Ek and Karin Kavli (1949); Laurence Olivier’s highly controversial London premiere with Vivien Leigh and Bonar Colleano (1949); Jean Cocteau’s dark and sensual interpretation with Arletty and Yves Vicent in Paris (1949); and last but not least the performance of the Bungakuza Dramatic Company in Tokyo (1953). Kolin emphasizes how each performance effectively revealed, according to its specific political/local agenda, a different textual layer of the original script.”

    Leigh & Brando

    Leigh & Brando in the film again

    Mexico first up; then Visconti in Rome; then one of Bergman’s acclaimed ventures into live theatre; a Cocteau version in Paris; and then another in Tokyo. For better or worse Karin Kalvi played Blanche in Bergman’s production, not Ullmann – who, explicably, would have only been ten at the time. Amazing, the big names involved and how quick they all were to pick up rights. By the way, I’m not insisting the production has to be Camp per se – but in the very least the style needs to be ‘heightened’. I recently reproduced a review of a production of Streetcar by the provocative Berlin director Frank Castorf: without having seen it, I can’t say it was Camp. But clearly the style was ‘pushed’ – indeed very ‘pushed’. You take a look at any of the film versions of Williams’ great plays, and this is why they work. And how about this image (below) of a 2004 dance version from the Stuttgart Ballet? One gasps at the window-ledge vulnerability. For a review of this production go to here

    Alessandra Ferri as Blanche in Stuttgart Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire © Bernd Weissbrod

    Meanwhile here (below is an exemplary sample of the kind of ‘pushed’ acting style I think you take great risks to abandon when taking on a Tennessee Williams text. Of course a director can do what they like – abandon any rule in the book – so long as the alternative works! Better than what you are choosing to leave behind.

    And here’s  a paragraph from a review of a recent production of Streetcar in Portland Oregon, which surely can’t be a bigger or richer or fancier or more sophisticated city than Sydney.

    “Deliberately avoiding the familiar design (cramped apartment + wrought-iron balconies = working-class New Orleans), he’s set the play in the asylum that the psychologically shattered Blanche DuBois winds up in at the end of the narrative. The nurses, orderlies and others come to represent the characters from her past, for a storytelling conceit that’s not quite flashback or re-enactment, and perhaps more like the kind of delusional displacement of reality that Blanche is lost in. The thematically potent plotline and Williams’ metaphor-rich Southern lyricism remain, and those are what Kretzu hopes to liberate from cliche.

    Marty Hughley, The Oregonian (10 April 2008)

    Meanwhile we, in Sydney get Death of a Salesman. Apart from this ‘ordinariness’ of this production’s ‘style’ (an artistic choice) there are some craft/technical problems as well. For example, the pace is deadly: three and half hours (with interval) hobbling along at the same pace from beginning to end. It was more of a trundle than strolling down the main street of Trundle, the small town between Parkes and Condobolin (pop 300) I was visiting last week – barely a human in sight (‘where nothing happens thrice’).

    Trundle @ Peak Hour: Photo by James Waites

    Trundle @ Peak Hour: Photo by James Waites

    This is where Ms Ullmann’s lack of experience is exposed. It’s a detailed and dutiful effort, but it lacks the rhythmical fine-tuning a more experienced stage director would give it. There are also few deep felt connections between the actors/characters on stage. Individually, the work is brave and honest and conscientious; but I never felt the stakes were ever particularly high for any of the characters in the story. And of course, this is another core trait of a Williams’ classic: every major character exists precariously on the edge of spiritual defeat. So I can’t blame Blanchett for the feeling I got that her performance exists in some kind of a vacuum – a magnificent study – with nuanced cadences and carefully selected gesture. But a study nonetheless.

    Above: Karl Malden (aka Mladen George Sekulovich) as Mitch with Leigh in the movie

    As for the set. We have here in Ralph Myers one of the grooviest designers currently working (The City, The Lost Echo). And he gets to do standard pop-up kitchen-sinker. This ‘realistic’ set quietly admits defeat (acoustics) when working in the Sydney Theatre by being pushed to within a couple of metres of the front stage space – a Panavision format that would have sat perfectly in the much derided letter-box SOH Drama Theatre. All those years of complaining, and that’s what we go back to. The massive height of the Sydney Theatre space however cannot be eliminated, and this is where Myers adds his postmodern flourish with a bulk of the proscenium filled in with plain black wall – in which sits a small (Edward Hopper) window to the apartment (and its life) upstairs. This is not the exterior of a New Orleans tenement as some have suggested, it is a self-conscious wink to the ‘old-fashioned’ aesthetic to what sits below.

    Tim

    Tim Richard (Mitch) with Cate Blanchett: more Arthur Miller from the director: Photo @ Lisa Tomasetti

    While the shape and look of the core acting space – Stan and Stella’s small apartment – are born of directorial choice (and Ms Ullmann and her designer may wish to hold their ground); the arrangement also happens to be technically clumsy for the many small scenes that take place on the doorstep and street outside. These all take place in a space of a couple square metres stage left (audience right) around the token fire-stairs to the apartment above. Okay stage right is left exclusively for Blanche’s arrival and departure. But the whole stage picture reeks of compromise in a space that, whatever else is wrong with it, there is room to do almost anything.

    Blanchett in The Talented Mr Ripley

    Blanchett is brilliant in The Talented Mr Ripley: no denying she can act but Blanchett also deserves a good director

    As for the costumes – they are beautifully made. Too much so. Blanche is a faded glory. Blanchett looks as if the case she is unpacking is one from the ship she takes to Italy as the super-rich young New Yorker in The Talented Mr Ripley (one of her best performances in my opinion). The clothes show none of the stress of a woman down on her luck. And as for the clothes of Stella and her down-at-heel neighbours, the fabrics are far too classy and the garments too well made. I say this in the context of Ms Ullmann opting for ultra-realism. It’s just another inbuilt contradiction in terms. The rest of the cast do whatever they have been told to do, which isn’t much. Rarely do any of them get past getting the lines right (in an accent as best as they can muster), and the moves right (and left). But I sensed little inter-communication between any of them, and almost nil ‘risk’ from anyone. With only Joel Edgerton as Stanley pushing at the constraints imposed.

    PS: If you loved this production – as I know many of you have – please feel free to take me to task.

    Posted by James Waites @ 10:19 am

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62 Responses

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  • Bill C. Says:

    If they missed the dark humour, they missed the play … Williams is not Ibsen.

    Your review makes me glad that I didn’t trundle down from S.E.Queensland to see it.

    Incidentally, my spelling-nazi persona requires me to tell you that you mean “past”, not “passed” in the sentence: “Never in this performance did I feel as if Blanchett had got passed the construction of her characterisation, or dropped as it were, the safety net”.

  • James Waites Says:

    Help with spelling always appreciated – so many words – so few editors! My pieces are usually full of typos and in the end I just them up because I know I will only see them once I’ve published…such is life for the solo round-the-world bloggist – oh my new word 4 bloggist- ‘onliner’ – what do you think? – been trying to find something less ugly….

  • Alison Croggon Says:

    Hi James – many thanks for this fascinating discussion. I wish I could come up and see it for myself! Totally with you on the “camp” quality (and united in admiration of Sontag’s classic essay). Williams himself called it “histrionic”.

  • Peter cross Says:

    Onliner certainly leads nicely into oneliner and thence to ocean liner and finally to any port in a storm.
    Pass the claret if you please.

  • James Waites Says:

    Hello Alison, thanks for dropping by. Slowly getting my mind back – I think! “Camp’ is one of strong areas – along with anything “Bacchic”!!

  • James Waites Says:

    And Peter – I guess you meant port wine!

  • Sarah Says:

    I think this is a very insightful piece. I, too, though this production was deeply unimaginative. Like the equally unimaginative Hedda Gabler, it will, I fear, be slaughtered in the USA and contribute once again to a poor impression of Australia’s theatre.

    The problem has been there for some time. STC’s practice of inviting actors to direct has meant quite a few horribly missed opportunities.

    James, you mention Liv Ullmanm here, and Philip Seymour Hoffman – both clear examples of bad outcomes of this practice. Robyn Nevin also had the actor Garry McDonald delivering an inept Stones in His Pockets, Jeremy Sims a couple of mistimed adventures, Pamela Rabe, Wayne Blair, Judy Davis (who turned out to pretty good) and of course both herself and Cate Blanchett. Nevin’s productions were frustrating: great material squandered – Mother Courage and Hedda especially – through direction without imagination. Nevin might have directed the actors (and sometimes very well) but she did not direct the productions. Blanchett’s Blackbird had nothing to say, despite her material. Compared to director Peter Evans’ MTC version, it was bland.

    When actors run theatre companies – which should not be problematic in itself – they might at least resist the obvious temptation of putting themselves, or other actors, in the director’s chair. Nevin and Blanchett have both failed in this regard. Blanchett has time to redeem herself.

  • James Waites Says:

    Thanks for your excellent thoughts Sarah – I feel less out on a limb. With so many print media reviews gushing with mindless blurb I felt some sort of ‘position statement’ was called for…history deserved at least one dissenting voice.

    Gosh I hope the Soderbergh booking works out better

    …cheers

  • Geoffrey Says:

    Thank you, James, for the time it has obviously taken to write your fascinating response. I’m in Melbourne and was never intending to see the production. Interestingly, my curiosity peaked a little when I saw the triptych promo photograph … and similarly I’m sure, I am surprised that the actual production appears to belie at least the marketing department’s intention for how it might look. I also believe you are absolutely correct to voice your dissent. Such an important season of a truly magnificent play with all its attendant personnel, deserves discussion. Thank you again for a most interesting read.

  • James Waites Says:

    Thanks for dropping in Geoffrey. Yes I did put a bit of work into this one – but I felt I needed to test my thesis against what information I could find out there in cyberspace. The chase was fascinating. Still waiting for someone to disagree with me :)

  • Geoffrey Says:

    I’m sure there will be many who do … and many who don’t. The interesting thing about “Streetcar … ” is that, in my mind anyway, the film (even with its obvious omissions from the text for the stage play) remains a definitive version. If such a thing ever truly exists (I argue with myself). In this case, I believe it does. The same can be said of “The Seagull”, which I had the great and unending pleasure of having seen the Moscow Art Theatre’s production of at a Spoleto Festival in Melbourne many years ago. I can very happily go to my grave never seeing another. And I doubt I ever will (bother seeing another that is, not go to my grave). I watched the film version of “Streetcar … ” not all that long ago and really, there is nothing I imagine any other version could inform me about either it, or me.

  • geoff parkes Says:

    Hi Jim
    Lovely to find you here and writing again and indeed on a topic I have pondered much upon. Surely I was not alone in wondering if Cate’s blow on the head was not an act of god aka Msr Williams bellowing from above and giving an overwhelming hint that of all the pent-up sexually frustrated valium addicted women responsible for sending their gay husbands to bed with another man and then to the grave, our Cate would be the last on the list…
    perhaps it’s sin city and the odour of liberation – what sexually frustrated woman in her forties wouldn’t want to be friends with handsome homos to hook her up with a straight acting man like stanley kowalski… :-)
    I hope this finds you in good spirits, with good spirits such as Msr Williams, and when truly petrified by the thought of Cate moaning about the kindness of strangers (she ought to come to Toowoomba – we don’t take kindly to dem strange folk here), one can always turn to the simpsons musical version of a streetcaar named desire on youtube…

  • James Waites Says:

    Geoff,

    how goddam great to hear from you! I have often wondered – you did the best job interview ever picking up that second phone on the desk and fielding questions as if you’d been on the team for years. Dig up my email address from ‘About Moi’ – and tell me more. How many double black coffees have you drunk since I last saw you? And you are back with that nice Priest?

  • May-Brit Akerholt Says:

    James, all I can say is, why don’t you write reviews for all the major newspapers? The theatre world needs you. We need debate, deliberation, provocation; we need critics who understand the difference between acting, direction, production, who explore what is happening on the stage (and the thoughts behind it), who not just recount what they see. The arts pages are no longer worth reading.

    I have greast admiration for Liv Ullmann. I grew up watching her on stage and in television theatre, which was of excellent standard. She was my first Nora. But I’m tired of outstanding actors being given directing gigs because they are outstanding actors. Hasn’t worked yet, not in the examples we’ve seen in Sydney.

    I’m seeing Streetcar in a couple of weeks. I might get back to you.

    Thank you, James. May-Brit

  • James Waites Says:

    Well hi-there,

    The short answer May-Brit is that someone has to offer me a job. I have made up my own in the absence and, despite the modest lifestyle, enjoy the editorial freedom.

  • Joanna P Says:

    Oh James thank God someone has finally had the courage to say that these two Empresses have no clothes! Liv Ullman has created a world that has nothing to do with the play Williams wrote, no heat, no sweat, no sex. A sterile, Scandinavian monolith of concrete wall that is about as far removed from the French Quarter of New Orleans as is possible. Cate Blanchett is indeed a fine actress but she needed someone to tell her when to stop–stop twitching, stop drinking such an absurd number of drinks (since when is Blanche a falling down drunk?) and stop posing in spotlights (the opening and closing images isolating her on the stage in a spot are embarrassing) The critical response in Sydney makes one despair–the blindness to the flaws in this production will, as you suggest, only make the shock of being ripped to pieces by Ben Brantley in the New York Times all the harder for the poor actors to take after the obligatory standing ovation every night in St. Cate’s town.

  • simon barney Says:

    For the record – I didn’t see anyone standing (tuesday last week). I was too exhausted to stand. Jim’s right about pace – but sniping about ‘our cate’ aside, her performance made the night a hit – she carried it. So the promotors at least aren’t clueless – she’s the name selling it. As for camp – I thought stanley’s muscles were fairly heightened. Probably should have had a credit of their own. But I wanted them to sweep all that clutter off the stage – sure it got in the way of the actors but it got between the actors and the audience too. Was it supposed to be realism or a knowing (and tired)wink at what used to be called realism.
    Great piece Jim. I don’t quite agree about camp. I’d have preferred it stripped back. Get something going between the characters. But your point about risk kind of sums it up.

  • Geoffrey Says:

    Yes. “Risk”. That’s the critical point here and one I have been contemplating when re-reading this piece, the comments and also other reviews. I’ll say again that I haven’t seen, and won’t be seeing, this production – but the theme that appears to be revealing itself here is that “War of The Roses” and “The Season at Sarsparilla” appeared to have been the subjects of greater risk-taking than “Streetcar …” … which is peculiar. And that, I’m afraid, appears to be purely about the choice of Director.

  • richard Says:

    another fantastic piece James, signed an appreciative ex flatmate :)

  • Michelle Says:

    A great review James, but I beg to differ about there being nothing camp in this production. What could be camper than having a man who is a factory worker, whose exercise routine consists of drinking beer and playing poker appear display his Sydney tanning-salon all-over suntan and muscles straight from City Gym? A small point but indicative of the inattention to detail, or lack of understanding of the world of the play.

  • Michelle Says:

    correction: I of course meant to say “appear displaying…”

  • Augusta Says:

    So marvellous dearest James! A thorough and far reaching comment and context on this play. I will join the debate post Oct 16th when I see it… until then- shall we start lobbying for you to ressurect the brief pages of the major papers?
    x

  • James Waites Says:

    It’s midnight and I am just back from Gethsemane – it was a good performance…

    Augusta – I am happy where I am – it suits me – no boss – I can file late etc – but been missing you – let’s gossip soon

    will rsvp to other comments in the morning…

    ps: those big papers know where to find me if that’s what they wanted
    xx

  • James Waites Says:

    Hi Joanna, Simon, Geoffrey, Richard & Michelle!

    Here I am in the steamy Latin Quarter of Surry Hills surrounded by Polacks digging up pipes. True they are not City Gym bodies- they are either beer-gutted and strong or built like brick shithouses and cooked in the sun strong. And nowadays some nice chicks in sunglasses holding stop and go signs for added colour and a nod to women’s liberation. This was definitely where Ullmann lost control of her idea visuallly. If she was going for ‘realism’ as the active part of her set suggested then it would have been better just to see Joel’s nice new strong new arms. The body was so obviously gym built and it looked (nice but) so wrong.

    I thought the tattoo on the inside of his forearm – a very today place to put a tattoo – seemed even more at odds with the era in which the production is set than the muscles. These are the sorts of details that ruin the illusion being sought elsewhere with so much effort.

    By the way, I don’t see Joel’s body as camp (in this production) in the Sontag-Williams sense – maybe in the Richard Wherrett-STC sense perhaps. Joel is one of the nicest guys in the business so this is not a dig at him – but the word I would use aesthetically for his body glamour is ‘narcissistic’. The same as that guy in the movie Australia – whatever his name was.

    Can I say one thing against myself and my argument. Ullmann’s lack of experience to one side (that is a unarguable weakness), letters are pouring into STC from subscribers who are – at last! – seeing the kind of production they believe they are paying for and hoping for. Speaking to a senior staffer yesterday, you appreciate their bind. The company cannot satisfy all tastes all the time. So let’s at least be glad it’s in the big theatre and pulling in dollar bills and a whole bunch of people (not like us but do love their theatre) are enjoying it.

    Also, it was never my intention to take anything away from C Blanchett in my criticisms – I hold her in the highest regard. But I am sticking to my guns on this point: I do not believe she was particularly well served by this director.

    As for stripped back, Simon – I was bottle feed on Brian Thomson! Stripped back is my default position. If a designer wants to fill a stage with junk it needs to be for a good reason…so yes, am with you on that one…

    Good morning all!

  • Sarah Says:

    James, let’s make a distinction here. If this had been directed by an experienced director who had given us a strong, nuanced, rhythmic, visually integrated ‘traditional’ production, then we might not have much to be bothered by, and indeed the bulk audience would have been even more pleased and written even more letters. That this production wasn’t ‘radical’ is not my prime beef, and I doubt yours. It’s that this production is not strong, nuanced, rhythmic or visually integrated – in other words, it is not directed. It’s a group of actors doing there best in the circumstances. (And, thankfully, that best is often rather good, but not as good as it might have been.)

    For me, this argument is not about ‘traditional’ versus ‘radical’, or however you wish to frame that. It’s about respect for the art and craft of the director, which has been lacking at STC since Nevin’s time, and now during Blanchett’s time. It’s all very well to point to the support of Kosky and Andrews (indisputable and terrific), but let’s also acknowledge that STC continues to court and capture failure when it asks actors to direct.

  • Joanna P Says:

    You are spot on Sarah. Take a group of very good actors and give them a masterpiece of a text and of course they will all work hard to give the audience their money’s worth, and that is certainly the case here. And after the other STC productions of this season it is a relief to know the company finally has a money-spinner, and that is good news for all theatre-goers. The simple fact that not one critic in any newspaper was willing to acknowledge is that this play is poorly served by its director, and American audiences are less likely to be so blindly indulgent.

  • James Waites Says:

    Yes ladies I think you have both got that right. Indeed it’s not just hero directing we want – eg Kosky and Andrews – but good directing…

    Nevin did start something with her deep suspicion of directors who are directors – and yes we fear as a group, I think, the tradition is continuing…

  • Angelique Says:

    Not having seen the production I cannot comment. However..there seems to be an awful lost of handwringing over the Joe’s physique. Immediately prior to Streetcar, he was in the US filming a movie in which he plays a Mixed Martial Arts fighter, thus the gym body. I realize the desire for realism…but lets get real…should he have given up one project for the other in order to have looked less “narcissistic”?

  • Alison Croggon Says:

    Great debate! Yes, Sontag’s essay – to which James helpfully posts a link – is about a different quality than the “campness” of oiled pecs. Camp is the quality of taking the frivolous seriously and being frivolous about the serious, Wilde being the exemplar. And it absolutely applies to Williams, who created a heightened theatricality – “big” exaggerated theatre – that we seldom see on stage. And which I for one enjoy. A social realist production kind of misses the point.

  • James Waites Says:

    Hi Angelique,

    Joel’s body is not a big item on the debate agenda – though for stylistic coherence it might have been stronger for him to keep his shirt on. His bulk ‘suggested’. He’s very good in the role (in the circumstances), and it’s great to see him cast in the part. No one is critical of him per se.

    It’s just the way the conversation has wandered – as it can. If I referred to narcissistic it wasn’t directed at Joel – you couldn’t meet a guy in the business less like that. It was a clumsy way of trying to describe a phenomenon we see often these days (perhaps not often enough for out baser desires) when modern bodies are used to represent other eras. The same could be said triply so for hairstyles – though not in this production where the haircuts fit nicely with the set! How often do we see actors in period/peasant roles with awesomely cut hair utterly out of synch.

    This has really been a debate about the responsibilities you take on if you go for full-blown realism. One tiny error and the illusion is busted.

    And as Alison suggests (and my original posting ponders)- why go there in the first place when you have much more exciting and ‘revealing’ stylistic options available.

    Thanks for making your point however, Angelique, because it needed clarification.

    PS: I’ve not had such a response to something I’ve written before – so thanks to all who have been contributing. I am learning from every comment.

  • Review and Discussion: A Streetcar Named Desire « Epistemysics Says:

    [...] nature of the direction.  Over at James Waites’ blog, there’s been a discussion going on about whether the direction was experimental enough or not, [...]

  • epistemysics Says:

    “This has really been a debate about the responsibilities you take on if you go for full-blown realism. One tiny error and the illusion is busted.” – Really? For instance, I didn’t even realise that the tattoo on the arm was anachronistic until you pointed it out, and the same can be said for the muscles. We accept these anachronisms and continuity errors in film much more than you seem to be suggesting we do on the stage – after all, the watch on that guy’s arm in Ben Hur didn’t break the illusion of the movie, did it? (Or at least not that dramatically.)

    This isn’t the main point I wanted to make, though. I have to agree with Sarah’s assessment – that it’s not the play’s experimentation that’s the problem, but the other errors (directorial, actor…ial, etc). I talked about this in my review, but I’ll sum it up here (partially, at least). Basically, if I had had the choice of a more traditional approach versus an experimental (in an asylum) one, I’d have gone for the traditional – this was my first encounter with Streetcar (apart from a Simpsons episode), and I had a desire for the traditional. If, however, I was seeing it a second time, I’d be much, much more open to an experimental version. I have a feeling that this sentiment was shared by a large number of subscribers (as well as a desire to see a “strong”, solid play – especially after *cough*saturnsreturn*cough*), hence the letters you mentioned. I’d be interested to know when the previous production of Streetcar was in Sydney (I assume there was a previous?).

    As for the pacing, maybe it could have been better, more nuanced, etc, but I’d hardly call it “deadly” – I have ADOS (Attention Deficit Oooh Shiny) and was captivated the whole time, which is quite rare for me. Plus there’s something to be said for slow and steady winning the race in a tragedy (in some cases, anyways).

    Totally with you on the ridiculousness of the love fest in the papers, though. Though I hear the optometry industry has been doing well recently, what with all the eyes rolling out of people’s sockets… And I’m with everyone else in praise of the fascinating article!

    And apologies for the trackback – I forgot to turn them off. How left of me! (As the French say in English.)

  • James Waites Says:

    Track backs are good Episto. It led me to your hilarious mathematical computations. Whoever said 1 + 1 don’t make 3! I now wonder if there is any difference at all between computer programs and theatre programs?

    Not to mention your own fascinating response to Streetcar…you have a very original take on things! Don’t stop…

    All any of us can do as commentators is try and find a way to be honest with ourselves. If we get close, then your, mine or anyone else’s written description of what happened to us while were watching Streetcar is not only valid – but engaging to the reader. A critic is NEVER RIGHT – at best they are INTERESTING!

    By the way, a film like Ben Hur could have been directed by Almodovar or Baz Luhrmann, who’s film Australia is very CAMP. I’ve only seen the trailer for Inglorious Basterds – but it suggests a similar disrespect for historical accuracy – likely to good effect? The point being – whatever path you choose to go down in making your work of art – you have to stick to it.

    Among the building blocks of Ben Hur’s stylistic ‘grammar’ are the bountiful anachronisms: hair, fabrics, makeup, the way the props are designed and made, the dialogue. But the style is sustained throughout and hence we believe in the conceit. So now we get to Style – which leads us back to Susan Sontag. Of course she has an essay On Style as well as Notes on Camp.

    http://lemming.mahost.org/library/onstyle.htm

    I am so glad Alison Croggon is with me on this lady’s writing. Post Foucault/Derrida (sorry that’s kinda where I gave up – and I think both of them a brilliant) the language of critical analysis seems to get more and more convoluted and obscurantist. If I can pass on one tip to any of you Y-ers out there reading with in interest in ‘criticism’ as a form: if she wasn’t on your course lists or is out fashion – go read Susan Sontag – with Against Interpretation being the other foundation document. So easy to read – and so on the money!

    If you need a celebrity connection – she was Annie Liebovitz’s girlfriend. How hot can it get in a kitchen? Her writing on Photography is also, not surprisingly, hugely engaging and has been incredibly influential. She is the queen of high thinking and plain speaking! Time to bring her back into play.

  • epistemysics Says:

    And who is the celebrity connection for Annie Leibovitz? (Oh yes, I’m that ignorant…though Google has kindly informed me about her). Curiously, yesterday I bought Reborn (Sontag’s early diaries).

    As for anachronisms, Ben Hur was probably quite the bad example, but I’m still sticking with the idea that one anachronism does not a complete-breakdown-of-illusion make. Moving on, though.

    Sontag is a difficult beast (metaphorically) – I don’t entirely agree with On Style, or perhaps it is a feeling that she’s missing something, though trying to articulate (or even know) what that is is like trying to slow your plummet to the earth by reaching out for the clouds. But reach for the clouds I shall.

    I think what is causing me problems is that Sontag started off talking about literary criticism, and then extended it to other art criticism (including theatrical), and I think her comments don’t apply to theatrical criticism as well as they do to other forms. Mainly because, while, for example, a novel is composed by one person in one creative act, the text of a play is composed by one person in one creative act then interpreted by many other people in many interpretive acts. So while form and content are the same for literature, there is another layer on top of that that theatre has (the interpretive), but the other arts don’t (with the possible exception of music, maybe). I suppose I’m wondering whether the flaw she sees in separating style from content (or creating a false distinction between the two) applies to that extra layer in theatre, and whether that does or doesn’t invalidate speaking about the stylistic choices of an interpreter (the director, say) as a critic.

    I can’t help the feeling that I’m not touching any clouds, however!

    And to paraphrase Sontag and plagiarise Wilde: art is a record of the will, criticism a record of the soul. Don’t know if I believe that or not, but it sounds cool.

  • James Waites Says:

    Oh dear – I just spent an hour replying to this – and my new 8-week-old kitten – Dandy – has just walked across my keyboard and all is lost. I only got him yesterday. Why does cute so often go with naughty? Esp with kittens and young men?

    I assure you Episto (and other readers) it was an extensive and engaged response. Anyway I think you are on to something – what I was trying to do was explain the critical climate in 1965 when theatre (to most people) meant play-texts – by-and-large single author.

    Not a defence – but perhaps a context.

    I will have to go back to Sontag’s essay, which I have not read in a long time: where she may well acknowledge multi-authorship in theatre-making before tripping over her shoe-laces while reaching for he clouds.

    Dandy is back up on the desk – I have to push the go button!!

  • epistemysics Says:

    You know what I find helps in situations such as these, when keyboards are being traipsed upon, curtains ripped to shreds, and leather upholstery ruined? One of those water-sprayer things that some people use to water indoor plants, the one with the squeeze trigger – a quick squirt works wonders in discouraging the bad behaviour of cute and naughty things.

    Not sure if it works on kittens, though.

    Context is important, and something that I’m sorely lacking. I assume “directors” haven’t always been given to making stylistic choices, though I have no idea when that would have started to become the widespread case. From your comments I’m guessing sometime after 1965…

  • James Waites Says:

    Episto,

    I have to abandon you for a day – all but briefly anyway. Despite an email this morning already from a leading younger director encouraging me to pursue your inquiry about directorial ‘choice making’.

    “….please pick up on epistemysics comment about directors and interpretation. Great directors have always made stylistic choices from Stanislavsky through Piscator, Reinhardt, Brecht (a country unto himself though really), Brook, Wilson, Sellars, Armfield, Kosky… And then let’s talk about Asian theatre.”

    So no – there was a before as well as an after.

    Meanwhile I have an increasing backlog of shows to write about. And I am feeling increasingly anxious about not getting on with things…my duties as it were.

    Anyway there above are some directors names for you to google Episto; and I do look forward to hearing from you again.

    Meanwhile readers who have become as engaged as I have in the unique and lively working of Epistemysics mind can I suggest you go to:

    http://epistemysics.wordpress.com/

    where a few items down from the top is Episto’s own take on Streetcar. And I note with interest a piece further below titled ‘Myself and Patrick White: A Comparison” – I dare not imagine who comes out on top. But must. I will put my curiosity in my pocket at least for a bit.

    Plus I am in the middle of two fascinating OraL History interviews for the National Library this week (great but tiring); and I am reading John McCallum’s book Belonging – on 20th Century Australian playwriting – which is proving to be a hugely valuable document (and a massive labour of love).

    PS: I fear nothing will stop this kitten from being a kitten …..and anyway the second version said the same in fewer words. My new editor-in-chief 8-week-old Dandy. Photos soon….

  • James Waites Says:

    Oh – as for directors and style – there was a kinda gap in the interpretive fervour found in the work of the early Modernists (pre WW1) – Piscator, Reinhardt, Meyakovsky etc and late Modernists (post Vietnam) Sellars, Mnouchekine, Brook…not to mention Tasmanian puppet theatre of the 1980s (that is almost not a joke).

    Criticism in this middle era (1940s-50s) was dominated by English lit academics – who wrote mostly about the plays (not productions) of Shakespeare – I think represented the ‘establishment’ view Sontag had decided to challenge – yes it was still a single author world order. ‘Form versus Content’ not ‘Form is Content’. I present a fragment of the line of discussion I was pursuing yesterday morning when Dandy intervened.

    This morning he has gone out to create a dust storm! Little bugger….

  • epistemysics Says:

    Ahh, you’re far too kind (more, more!). I’d like to say that my absence was due to my thinking things over, but life managed to get in the way for me as well. Especially since I managed to get my hands on an STC 2010 booklet before the season launch, so I had to do an analysis of that (anything for an exclusive, yes?). Anyways.

    Well, I’d heard of three of those directors, and I’ve seen Kosky’s Poppea, so what follows should be a completely measured and well thought out response…

    As for Kosky’s Poppea, I’m not sure what his other type of work has involved, but I wouldn’t have called Poppea a stylistic choice so much as it was a reimagination, as Kosky stuck the libretto in a blender and made it his own, so it wasn’t really a “play plus style” but more a “play remixed”. Though the difference is not that important, or particularly relevant here.

    Wikipedia says that director’s role used to be carried out by “actor managers”, with those initial names that Mr. (or Ms.) Leading Young Director mentioned being the first to start to do the directing by themselves, which paved the way for directors to start inserting their own artistic vision into a piece. This means, as you noted, James, that stylistic choices by directors were being made before 1965, and before WWII.

    Which means that Sontag missed something. Or I missed something when I was reading her essay (which is still quite a high possibility). Or she would have categorised these “stylistic choices” as “stylizations”:

    “”Stylization” in a work of art, as distinct from style, reflects an ambivalence (affection contradicted by contempt, obsession contradicted by irony) toward the subject-matter. This ambivalence is handled by maintaining, through the rhetorical overlay that is Stylization, a special distance from the subject. But the common result is that either the work of art is excessively narrow and repetitive, or else the different parts seem unhinged, dissociated.”

    Though I doubt many theatre practitioners would accept a director’s influence having an effect or lack of importance such as she describes.

    Of course, just because directors started to make these choices pre-WWII doesn’t mean that these choices weren’t made before then – though I assume they were made by the actors and designers, or even the playwright. The playwright is a special case, though, for it being the same author, any choice made by them would fall perhaps under a “creative” choice rather than an “interpretive” one, which would mean that a one-man written-and-directed play wouldn’t have that extra layer I referred to.

    And there a special cases for most of these, where, for example, a playwright working with a director would ensure the director’s interpretation lined up with the playwright’s, along with about a million other permutations. Very murky. (It’s late at night so hopefully all this made sense!)

  • Juno Gemes Says:

    James that’s a fascinating discussion. I agree Liv Ullman made be a godess as an actor – but this is a poor production. Tenessee Williams poetic language and characters are so finely drawn – there is such tension and misunderstanding in their interaction – which builds to immense betrayals and tragedies. All this is absent in these dull portrayals. Blanchett goes through the motions like a moth skewered – and her is compelling. But Stanly and Stella are so perfuctory- it could be a NIDA production. So disappointing. It’ll be a slaughter in USA ….don’t you think?

  • Mark P Says:

    No doubt slaughtered in the US and rightfully so. And what will the ad campaign for the 2010 season be? If you hated Upton’s Riflemind as much as the Brits, and hated Upton’s version of Hedda Gabler as much as the Yanks, you’re sure to despise his version of Uncle Vanya! Wouldn’t you hate to be trying to push that shit uphill for STC?

  • James Waites Says:

    Belvoir has an image problem in the ‘employment of ladies’ department; and STC has one in its ‘favouritism’ of actor-directors. Now writer-directors! Barrie Kosky told me recently he thought the biggest problem in Australia theatre was the shortage of quality director-directors. Okay – so what is the solution? I wonder…

    Thanks for dropping in Mark.

  • Tim Says:

    Those of us “yanks” that have tickets to the play are very much looking forward to this production.

    We certainly can arrive at decisions ourselves and won’t let the well known Aussie tall-poppy syndrome to cloud our judgements.

  • Ana Says:

    Cate is an spectacular actress. The Best !

  • Ana Says:

    Cate is a spectacular actress. The Best !

  • Mark P Says:

    Tim (and all others) I am in full agreement that you should approach this production with an open heart and ready to appreciate the great gifts of some of the artists involved, Cate being without doubt one of the first class actresses of her generation. The problem with this production rests solely at the feet of the director, which, I believe was stated by James Waites in his opening paragraph. As for the husband’s adaptations, well, one can but hope the next one will be better.

  • James Waites Says:

    Thanks Mark, I have been offline for a while – adventure travels beyond the reach of the WWW. Of course Cate Blanchett is a great actress and the company is looking good in so many ways under the directorship of herself and Andrew Upton. The back story is that Liv Ullmann delivered a very different production to the one she promised. So much so, not everyone at the STC is entirely in disagreement with my views – and that of the many others who have contributed to this rare (for Sydney) online debate.

    As for the stick the STC has received for giving too many directorial assignments to actors – there’s nothing wrong with management having a think about that.

    There of course inevitably still much for many to enjoy and admire about this production.

  • karina Says:

    James, it has been refreshing and a relief to find your blog. After reading the newspaper reviews I thought there must be something wrong with me when after seeing this production I was disappointed. Both my husband and I thought it was flat. We were in the back row and came to the show after an exhausting school holidays entertaining our children and initially thought maybe those factors had something to do with our experience. But after reading your post and others comments I have re-established faith in the validity of my own opinions.

    With the resources and contacts STC have, it is a shame that something such as this was presented. I am no theatre expert but can imagine even some basic ways they could have conveyed the sense of heat (both in temp and between characters) and the oppressive atmosphere which I assume should have existed in the flat. And I almost laughed when during the rape scene Joel lifted Cate’s dress like a young boy peaking up a skirt for the first time. Realism that was not – yet another stylistic contradiction. And another one: Cate walking off stage on her own as she did at the end and standing in the corner – what was that about?

    Working in psychotherapy where I often see clients shift from one to another aspect of themselves as they explore their inner world, I see more energy and presence and connection between characters in my office each day!

    We all know Cate and Joel can do better, so you must be correct in that the problem was the lack of experienced and sensitive direction.

  • Robert Jarman Says:

    James, only just discovered this so I;m coming to the discussion rather late.

    Well, unlike some of your other (wiser) comment-makers, I DID fork out the airfare and ticket-price and flew up specially from Hobart to see Streetcar. I went not just because of the names attached (though that was certainly an attraction) but precisely because I ASSUMED that an STC production of Williamson would (of course! automatically!) tap into all those things that make Tennessee so enthralling, lovable and frustrating. The chaos, the loss, the piercing intimacy, the spooky intuition, the right on-target gossipy-ness, the heart-on-the-sleeve romanticism, the vulnerability, the hauteur. In fact, the camp.

    What a disappointment! What a dull, flat, luke-warm disappointment it all was.

    You are spot-on in your assessment of Cate Blanchett’s performance – a study rather than a portrayal. A magnificent study! but a study none the less. (And yet at the same time how extra-ordinary she is, making everyone else on the stage seem rather third rate.)

    What I have found most interesting about the discussion here are two comments:
    - that we don’t (necessarily) need more “hero-directors” (nice term) but just some more good directors, and
    - that we also need more director-directors (as opposed to actor- or writer-directors).

    But, as an outsider looking in, this seems to be the way of theatre in Sydney these days. Not sure if it is happening anywhere else in the country, but it certainly seems that people who have dedicated their time, energy, skill, talent, intelligence and imagination to the art of directing are just as likely NOT to get a directing gig, being passed over in favour of someone whose (perhaps considerable) primary talents lie elsewhere. Is this some kind of revolt against the “power” of the director?

    Anyway, maybe we can catch up when I am up in Sydney next (Christmas – New Year).

  • Dr Geoffrey Borny Says:

    Hello James, It’s a long time since we met and performed together in a Victorian Soiree at the University of New South Wales. You played a tuba if I recall correctly. As you probably know I did my Phd on Tennessee Williams and so I was fascinated to see the Liv ullman production. I thought the acting was superb but the the production was marred by the most awful stage design. For a start the set described by williams was supposed to have “raffish charm”. This set had no charm at all and was much more suited to the set required for the Glass Menagerie. But most importantly this set did not allow for a space for Blanche to create her own space in which she softens the harsh world of Stanley and uses the paper lantern to make her world less start and garish. Apart from saying that Blanche could sleep on the camp bed in the kitchen there was no sense in which blanche had her own space. You never believed that Blanche ever slept in the kitchen. Consequently Blanche spent much of her time in Stanley and Stella’s bedroom and even put up her paper lantern in that space. This is entirely wrong as the only time blanche should enter that space is when she is dragged there by Stanley when he rapes her. Also the ending was really rather odd. Blanche is meant to leave fully clothed with a sense of dignity given her by the doctor who shows “the kindness of strangers”. Stella should first be comforted by Stanley in the only way this limited person knows how – He put his hand in her blouse and holds her breast. Stella has chosen and accepted this physical relationship. The play should end with Stanley now winning at poker and significantly playing “seven card stud.”

    I think any director who really knew how this play worked would have asked the designer to come up with a set that would have helped to realise what this play is about.

  • Joanna P Says:

    I suppose I must amend my earlier description of this production as a money spinner. I read in the paper that Andrew Upton now says they will lose money on this sold out season in their biggest theatre, but that is a good thing as they gave away so many cheap tickets. Now, I’m no accountant, but…

  • James Waites Says:

    Hello Joanna,

    ‘Sold-out season’ – and yet they gave away ‘so many cheap seats’?

    What are people who could not buy a ticket for all the world going to think about that! Who did you need to know?

    I’m no accountant – or expert in marketing- but are being told that the so-called ‘sold-out’ season didn’t actually sell as well as hoped?

  • Matty Says:

    What a great read! While I also totally wanted scrims, camp etc.. I still loved the production. But I do agree, the direction was problematic and mostly unimaginative. I still recall my despair for the lost possibilities and the metaphoric power of the Mexican woman…what a blow! To be relegated to an awkward perch on a fire escape. Go figure. That said the show was a MASSIVE hit in the USA with only one negative review.

    Matty

  • Kel Says:

    Sad it is to see people in this country can’t cope with the success of others..New York loved this excellent production and are celebrating it. It seems some people find it hard to enjoy the success of others, and are envious, perhaps, as they haven’t had it themselves. Why not acknowledge their achievement. Comparisons are odious if they are not constructive.Criticism and discussion is vital, but stagnates if there isn’t any action behind them.

  • James Waites Says:

    Did you see the production either in Sydney or New York? I have no doubt it was better by New York as Cate B would have been in full flow which she was NOT at the opening of the run in Sydney. General Manager Rob Brookman emailed me from New York days prior to opening to say they have shaved 10 minutes of running time so that would have helped. Cate’s husband Andrew Upton told me weeks back the STC agreed with much of what I said – so is he and other STC staff also jealous of Cate’s success or that of the production? Ullmann let the STC down in ways you know nothing about – departing significantly from promises she made when she took on the assignment. And she arrived with the production already ‘blocked’ in her head – as if it were a movie to be made. That is not done in theatre – especially Australian theatre. And you have clearly not read the New York reviews fully – they said some nice things but many also expressed similar reservations about Liv Ullmann’s direction. I’ve never challenged anyone who has contributed a comment to this site before but I find your suggestion that ‘some people cant cope with the success of others’ utterly childish. I have devoted my career to supporting and encouraging the success of others. And pretty much everyone who has commented to my post has put a cogent case forward for their point of view. Apart form yourself and a couple of others who have played the ‘tall poppy’ card. Also I find fake names on posts of this nature cowardly – if you are going to prersent such an extravagant broadside then say who you are. For all those of us reading know you are Liv Ullmann’s mother. I look forward to further correspondence from you in which I am sure you will put up evidence – currently entirely absent – to support your infantile claims.

  • Claire Venables Says:

    Dear James
    I think your previous commenter would do well to read the review in The New Yorker by the respected theatre critic and writer John Lahr. Whereas he heaps praise on several of the performances, he writes: “Ullmann’s reductive decisions build to vulgar sentimentality,” and describes Blanche’s final appearance being “like a loony Daisy Mae from “Li’l Abner” and a “woeful miscalculation.” Perhaps most egregiously, he accuses the production of tampering with Williams’ intended ending, the Pieta-like image of Stanley, Stella and their baby, clinging to each other–abandoning Blanche in “the Kowalskis’ desire and collusion.” By ignoring that in favour of a final spotlit pose of the productions film star, clearly Lahr feels we as the audience are cheated.

  • James Waites Says:

    Thankyou Claire,

    I am amazed people keep reading this review and responding to it – quite fascinating. And thankyou for alerting us to John Lahr’s piece which I will go find.

  • Elissa Milne Says:

    Hi James,

    We met last night at the New Year’s Eve do, and I was so delighted by our conversation (particularly the comparison between your ‘cliffhanger’ and the entertainment served between Roman Candles and Catherine Wheels last night) that I sought you out online. And was delighted to find this blog. And even more delighted to find your detailed and insightful review (in the fullest sense of that word) of the this production from a few months back.

    I suspected I might find exactly the sentiments you expressed: I enjoyed watching Blanchett do Blanche, and yet…..

    You’ve encapsulated and expounded on the things that made this production one that did not ignite the spirit: thank you SO much!

    I look forward to being a regular reader of yours from this day one of this new decade.

  • Megen M Says:

    Hello

    First of all, let me start by saying that I love camp. Pedro Almodovar is a brilliant storyteller. “All About My Mother” is perhaps my favorite of his also. I’m a huge Cher fan – and if 1970s Cher singing a torch song in a Bob Mackie gown with her unique vibrato isn’t camp… Have you ever seen Lauren Bacall in “Applause”? Fabulous camp. And the heightened push of emotions of so many incredible 1930s and 40s films. I love it all.

    But I also loved this production.

    A week before seeing it, I was new to “Streetcar.” I had performed the scene with Stanley and Stella talking about Blanche & her trunk in a middle school drama class. And of course I knew the infamous “Stellaaa!” scene from the film with Marlon Brando like anyone who loves films and hasn’t lived under a rock should. But I had never seen the film. I felt it necessary that I watch it before seeing the production, so I rented it.

    It definitely had camp. Vivien Leigh was the perfect portrayal of someone a few cards short of a full deck. No one will ever compare to Marlon Brando as Stanley. I loved the film.

    But the next day, 3 hours and some odd minutes after Cate Blanchett’s initial introduction as Blanche at BAM, I found myself moved in a way that the film didn’t even begin to do.

    I thought the whole cast (with the exception of the gentleman who played Mitch) did a very nice job. The paired down set didn’t bother me, nor did the props, or the “too” beautiful clothes, or the tattoo on Joel’s arm.

    None of that bothered me because I was too caught up in the story and the characters, specifically Blanche(tt).

    My favorite thing about this production – Liv Ullman’s direction or Cate’s interpretation/portrayal or a combination thereof – was the transformation of Blanche. Unlike Leigh – and from what I hear, other actresses who have claimed the iconic role – Cate’s Blanche started out very self-aware. She had moments that she came across very jaded and cynical and other moments where she was totally lost in her own distorted version of reality. She didn’t start off totally off her rocker, completely immersed in her own fantasy as Leigh does in the film.

    There’s a line in the play that Blanche says about how sometimes she doesn’t tell the truth, she tells what the truth should be. In the film, you get the feeling that Leigh’s Blanche thinks she’s completely always right. Again, all part of her already too caught up in her own world. But with Cate’s Blanche, you get the feeling that she started out knowing that what she really was doing was ‘lying.’

    In the second act, the scene when the boy came to collect for the Evening Star… At the point after she kissed him, when she told him to go because she had to be good and not get mixed up with children – at that moment, Cate’s Blanche knew exactly what was real and what wasn’t. She knew what happened back at the school. She knew what she did was wrong and she knew why she did it. It’s almost like Cate’s Blanche started with just moments of madness and those moments just kept coming closer and closer together until they swallowed her whole.

    These moments of self-awareness also added some very funny moments to an otherwise very serious story. When I watched the film, I didn’t laugh at all. So I was slightly surprised to find moments in this stage production where not only did I laugh out loud but so did the audience. My favorite example is in the speech where Blanche is telling Stella not to hang back with the brutes. In the film, as I remember, Blanche is pleading with her sister in an overdramatic, melodramatic way – very camp. She comes across as almost pathetic, you feel sorry for her. But in this play, Blanche sarcastically described her brother in law in a sort of feministic way that came off as humorous. I’ll never forget the way Cate said the line about how “thousands and thousands of years have passed him right by” – she was so funny.

    But at the same time, right there next to this highly intelligent, high-brow, self-aware side of her – there was also a side that was an absolute mess. She got defensive about what happened in her past, she jumped down Stella’s throat and put words in her mouth when explaining about what happened to Belle Reve. She witnessed her gay young husband with a man and then, after mocking and humiliating him, watched him commit suicide. She watched as her whole world fell apart and then, developed a relationship with a student. All of this made her a bundle of nerves – and Cate did a beautiful job portraying this. Watching her hands shaking and ringing, and her glistening eyes… She almost had perpetual tears in and under her eyes the entire time. She had me on the edge of tears with her all throughout – sometimes when others in the audience would laugh at how ridiculous she was being, I’d be so caught up in it with her, how could I laugh? I’m not an actress, but I have a feeling it must be more difficult to remain on the constant verge of a breakdown, than to have one big dramatic breakdown.

    I thought this dichotomy made her Blanche so much more fascinating and sympathetic to watch. After seeing Cate’s performance I thought Leigh’s seemed rather one-dimensional in retrospect.

    In the film – and again I use the film as my thus-far only comparison to this play – Blanche comes off as almost afraid and timid around Stanley from the very beginning. But in the STC’s “Streetcar,” Blanche didn’t start out afraid or timid around Stanley at all. Of course she feigned shyness around him at times, but that was all part of her upbringing as a Southern belle – and part of the fantasy world she wished was reality. In this production Stanley had finally been given a formidable match.

    That is of course until she had finally been lost, finally given up her precarious hold of her sanity. The final breaking of her spirit was when Stanley raped her.

    I also like that Ullman and Blanchett chose to use alcohol as an important part of this production’s Blanche. It added both moments of humor – Blanche telling Stella she can only have one drink when we know she’d already had one – and also helped to amp up her dissent.

    And what a dissent. The rawness that Blanchett displayed at the end of the play…I was a mere few feet away from her and she was utterly wrecked. I love the way Meryl Streep described it as removing the layers of a person. I really think I saw Blanche’s soul in Cate’s eyes by the end of the production.

    I know a lot of people have a problem with the way Ullman chose to end the play also. Having Blanche not perfectly dressed up, walking out on her own. I understand the idea that Blanche thinks in her mind that she’s going to meet her gentleman suitor and that is why she’s supposed to be all dressed up. But the fact that Cate’s Blanche ‘believed’ she was dressed when in reality she was really in a nightgown, to me, made it all the more poignant and heartbreaking. I also don’t mind how Ullman chose to mirror the beginning and end of the play with the image of Cate alone. This production was really about highlighting Blanche and to end it with Williams’ original final line would have taken away from that and put the focus back on Stanley.

    I know I’ve been rambling, but I had a very visceral, emotional response to this play unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in theater before. The portrayal of Blanche has really remained with me and it’s been over a month. I can understand people’s problems with it and of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I also don’t think the production was 100% without flaws – nothing is perfect after all. But I really believe that the nuances and differences in interpretation that it brought to the script and the characters outshined any problems it may have had.

    I like that Ullman chose to strip away the camp and present the play in a new light. Some people may think that took away what was good about Williams’ script to begin with but I only think it served to make it better. I’d love to know what Williams’ would have thought of it. I have a feeling he would love it more than some would think.

  • CRITIC WATCH: AUSTRALIA’S MOST TALKED ABOUT « 5TH WALL Says:

    [...] too stark, too affected… wait – too affected? it’s f***ing Tennessee Williams!). James Waites weighs in with a long and thoughtful deconstruction of Streetcar in popular culture, along with a [...]

  • Rebecca W Says:

    Well judging by the ONE Helpmann nomination for soundscape, it seems their judging panel agrees with you.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ’0 which is not a hashcash value.

  • James Waites » Blog Archive » Wotever Happened to STC Acting? Says:

    [...] All three were unforgettable achievements. Even though I was very tough in my reviews of both Streetcar and Long Day’s Journey, both productions have stayed with me. And more to the point here, all [...]

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