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