The title is not just an easy pun. “Blanchett” could be read as a diminutive of Blanche DuBois, the name of Tennessee Williams’ most famous character, in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – and this is exactly what this actress delivers, performance-wise: a lesser effort, especially when compared with Vivien Leigh’s definitive performance in the 1951 movie.
I would like say here and now that Liv Ullman, when I interviewed her some years back, was one of the most enchanting, intelligent and real women I have ever met. On film, she has sensitively portrayed every human emotion imaginable and I looked forward to what she would extract from the play, but here she proves herself utterly the wrong director for it. We have a Norwegian helming an all Australian cast, most of whom struggle with their Southern accents just as Ullman tries to convey a New Orleans milieu which makes one wonder if she had ever actually been there. The wrong notes commence at the very beginning, which has two women neighbors of Stanley and Stella Kowalski (Joel Edgerton and Robin McLeavy) being overtly loud and unconvincingly Southern on the fire escape while Blanchett sits, seemingly unseen, on the stage in a corner, depriving Blanche of making any kind of memorably disoriented, chaotic entrance. The second-floor apartment of the Kowalskis’ neighbors is visible, as well, throughout the play, a distraction from the main action, and a positive disaster when employed for drama, for example, with the shades down, the characters within in abysmal silhouette, when Stanley frantically calls upstairs to retrieve his battered Stella. The actors also operate as stage hands, visibly changing the set, which only breaks the concentration of the viewer – and, one would think, the actors – throwing you completely out of the established emotional moment, as they bustle about the stage, immediately after some histrionic revelation, straightening chairs and cleaning the floor. Ullman’s choice of music during these transitions is also a mistake – heavy and obvious, from all-too conventional, canned-sounding “blues” themes (hey, we’re in the South, remember?) to a jangly ragtime version of the Varsouviana polka theme which so haunts Blanche. Ullman has the peddler, who eerily sells her flowers for the dead, remain onstage after her last line, lounging on that infernal fire escape, making an entire, wordless and needless play of her own, while, inside Blanche rages at her hapless suitor, Mitch (Tim Richards, sexlessly playing it like Walter Brennan at his most superannuated and crotchety). The little exterior “porch” is also over-employed throughout, providing a rest stop for actors who should be offstage after delivering their scene’s final line, instead of visibly catching their breath, an effect which only adds enervation to an already dragging production. The Kowalski abode itself looks more like a flophouse, with a scarcity of seating that forces most of the action to take unseemly place on their bed. Obviously Ullman took its “Edgar Allan Poe” aspects beyond the literal to a near uninhabitable point, and Blanche’s supposed efforts to dainty the place up are ineffectually minimal. Intrusive, cornball expressionistic sound effects proliferate as well, as if the director did not trust her actors to convey the right moods.
Granted, any new interpreters of the roles of Blanche and her eternal nemesis, Stanley Kowalski, have the daunting prospect of being compared to the work of Leigh and Marlon Brando, forever preserved as two of the all-time greatest performances on film. The only reason to mount any revival of this play in particular is if the actors can possibly bring something fresh to these parts after such precedence. Blanchett works hard, but the effort is all too obvious in her inability to fluidly fuse the variegated elements of her interpretation. She dutifully does the fluttery, spinsterish mannerisms of the initial scenes (which Jessica Lange so overdid throughout her entire interpretation of the role) and then surprises you with a low, growling force often as not brought on by her liquor intake (this is the drinking-est Blanche ever). The problem is these different facets don’t seem to be emanating from the same woman, and Blanche comes off initially as more schizophrenic than mercurial, which is perhaps intentional, if wrongheaded. Her best moment comes when she excoriates Stanley to Stella. Describing him as an animal, Blanchett finally conveys some of the real humor so lacking in her overall performance (along with a requisite, devastating charm). Blanche with her artifice and intellectual pretensions needs to be captivating, something Leigh was easily able to achieve with her deft, butterfly-light touch (which later morphed into a tigrish ferocity). Any heavier approach, which has sadly been true of every other performance I have ever seen, including, besides Blanchett, Ann-Margret, Jessica Lange, Blythe Danner and Natasha Richardson, makes the woman a tiresome natterer, almost deserving of Stanley’s contempt. Those absurdly entertaining words about Edgar Allan Poe or the Pleiades being seven sisters, all of which contain steel nuggets of truth for all their filigree, cannot be delivered as punch lines lest they become near-vaudeville routines merely inviting low chortles.
The heaviness is only emphasized during the more dramatic, stripped-of-all illusion moments, with Blanchett delivering famous lines like “I don’t want realism. I want magic” like sepulchral pronouncements, annoyingly broken up. She does more floorwork than Jerome Robbins, often completely covering her head with fabric. In her final encounter with Stanley, she plays it as a low-down drunken bawd, a far cry from Leigh’s dainty tipsiness, which is a brave choice, emphasizing the raw sexuality he has always brought out in her. The attack and rape are forcefully done, with Ullman employing a full panoply of “cinematic” lighting and noisome sound effects (like that eponymous streetcar finally making an aural entrance after a seeming entire summer of silence), but then we are treated to an additional, unscripted scene in which a supine, sated and naked Stanley is seen, while Blanche, her back to us, sits on the bed, recovering. (I could hear a faint whirr of Tennessee spinning away somewhere here.)
The play’s climax, as staged by Ullman, is a disaster and an insult to Williams. The playwright painstakingly describes – in dialogue, no less – the final, exquisitely appointed outfit Blanche is to wear for her exit, but Blanchett never puts it on. A shawl stands in for her dress, so memorably described as “Della Robbia blue,” which Blanchett, fresh from her last bath, dons over her slip, and, with matted hair and bare feet, she goes to her destiny. So, Ullman and company effectively, callously deprive Blanche of her last vestige of dignity in a cheap, unnecessary attempt to further pathos, underlining their overall effect of Blanche being in the loony bin already, as she has been, in this particular conception, from the start.
It must also be said here that the production is pocked by unscripted addendums. Whether these are intentional or due to faulty text recall is up for grabs, but I did not appreciate Blanchett added an “Oh, God,” before delivering “Maybe we are long way from being made in God’s image, but Stella, my sister, there has been some progress since then!” Blanchett also misread the line to the young collection agent she nearly seduces, asking him if he stopped into “a soda shop – and had a soda?” The line should have been “in a drug store – and had a soda?” Such additions and errors wreak havoc with the scrupulously calibrated rhythm and surprise of Williams’ brilliant dialogue, not to mention your own memory of the actual lines. Even the play’s deathless line, “I have always relied on the kindness of strangers,” is mitigated by Stanley consoling his Stella (who, somehow, as upset as she is, had no problem sending her beloved sister out in her underwear) with a paltry, lame and all too audible “Now, now…”
As Stanley, Edgerton’s accent ranges from Noo Yawk to South End Boston and back to his native Aussie, giving the effect that he studied it from a variety of American TV shows. The source of his interpretation is easier to put a finger on – it’s a pure Brando derivative, but, to make it his own, he needlessly coarsens it further, groping his crotch and actually spitting food at Stella and Blanche during the disastrous birthday party scene, besides (all too carefully) hurling plates against the wall. He shouts nearly all of his lines, but hollowly comes off as more of a snarling puppy than pit bull. However disappointing Blanchett might be, she is at all times smoothly professional, yet having to contend with a rank amateur like this for a partner. The very callow McLeavy unfortunately makes a fit companion to him, with an equally lousy accent (in which “birthday” becomes “buthday”) and blowsy, common quality, legs forever akimbo to suggest her newfound marital physical satisfaction, which makes it difficult to believe she ever had aristocratic roots of any kind. When Stanley refers to the “loose woman” in his house, she seems to fit the description far more than Blanche.
The one spot of artistry in the show is Tess Schofield’s exquisite costume designs for Blanchett, which have all the care and sensitivity missing from everything else. Some day I would perhaps like to see Blanche played with more sensual wiliness and force (and I don’t mean the grim, facile sexiness Ann-Margret brought to the role on TV), and I would definitely like to see Stanley done, for once, with a Southern accent, instead of some faint imitation of Brando’s urbanized tones. God knows, Dixie has more than its own share of mesmerizingly sensual male animals, but you’d never know it from just about every “Streetcar” production imaginable.
This review seems to be a minority report, as the critics are already falling all over themselves with praise for it, and the already sold-out run is causing high frustration among the ticketless. To those I say, take heart from the major celebrity sighting of the performance I attended: Lee Radziwell, flawlessly turned out in a New York High Society style that will soon be totally extinct – impeccably swirled bouffant and suavely tailored red jacket – elegantly carrying a leopardskin cushion to combat BAM’s rigorous seating. As the lights dimmed for the second act, I noticed her seat was empty and rather envied her.