Streetcar: Down and dirty from Down Under

Cate Blanchett stars under Liv Ullman’s direction in “Street Car Named Desire”

By Victoria Hofmo

Contributing Editor

Placing “Streetcar Named Desire” at BAM’s Harvey Theater left little need for a set designer.   It was not so long ago an abandoned theater whose restoration turned it into a once again useable performance space.  However, this was done somewhat radically as the proceeding layers were not painstakingly plastered and painted over, but rather incorporated into the restoration.  Here history is literally peeled back, revealing what has come before.  Its decayed beauty is very much like the French Quarter in New Orleans where this play takes place.   

The seating is close, as if you live across the alley from the tenement, whose walls have been peeled away.  You are in close proximity to the sounds, smells and intimacies of your neighbors.  The tenants take this for granted and the stage direction further blurs the line between the private and public.  For instance, I have never been to a play where a character, dressed in their underwear squats over with their butt to the audience.  But, this crude gesture is really quite natural behavior for humans who are not on stage, when performing a common task such as picking something up.  You do not reposition yourself.  Allowing the audience to peer at the actors behaving naturally, as if they are at home, sets the audience up to be voyeurs.  

The star of this sold-out engagement is Cate Blanchett (Blanche Dubois) who I had seen perform with this same group, the Sydney Theater Company in the same location, BAM a little over a year ago, when she starred as Hedda Gabler.  A Norwegian connection has remained as, she is now being directed by Liv Ulmann in this iconic Tennessee Williams play. 

 How did this production come about?  Ulmann and Blanchett had been working on a project to film “A Doll’s House,” and the necessary funding was never obtained. They decided to do a theater piece instead and pondered through the list of some Scandinavian greats; Strindberg and Ibsen.  Then Andrew Upton, Blanchett’s husband and co-artistic directors of the STC, casually suggested “Streetcar Named Desire” and Ulmann was immediately intrigued.  Blanche Dubois is a part that Ulmann had always dreamed of playing, so I guess for her to direct this play may be the next best thing.

 Ulmann came to understand the play by exploring southern blues music.  According to Blanchett in a New York article, “It is Ulmann’s foreignness with the material that makes her interpretation so liberating,” because, she was not wedded to the film version and other southern clichés.  In the same interview Blanchette describes Ulmann as a reticent director.  This Sydney star appreciates this type of direction because they can convey things by non-verbal means and even admits to “stealing a few things from her director… [such as] letting her hands float dreamily before her in Dubois-ian splendor are Liv’s.” 

The direction is wonderful and surprising, as it finds layers in the play that I do not recall form either the movie or other theatrical productions.  Blanche goes toe-to-toe with Stanley, and is an equal match or opponent rather than a victim.  They are especially evenly matched in their worldliness and glibness, allowing for enjoyable sparring and indicating sexual tension rather than pure hatred.  I am surprised by the humor this balance of power uncovers. 

Because Blanche and Stanley unveil more depth and nuances, it is a much richer play.  One wonders how Ulmann and riveting actor Joel Edgerton (Stanley Kowalsi) would handle the famous Brando scene when Stanley breaks down calling “Stella, Stella.”  Here – Stanley cries when he realizes what he has done to his wife while drinking.  He breaks down like a baby in a fetal position.  It makes for a much more multidimensional and richer play.  It also better illustrates why Stella would come back downstairs after the row, since he is now docile.

A stronger Blanche makes her more culpable in the game. Blanche is not flirtatious in the manner of a Southern Belle, as seen in the movie version.  She is much more physical in her sexuality.  It’s as if she is at war with the juxtaposition between her demure southern lady-like upbringing and her passionate sexuality.  In the Kowlaski household her raw desire wins, unlike anything Vivien Leigh had ever done.  She flirts physically, in close proximity, sneaks peeks at his physique and shows herself a little too underdressed (in a towel alone) while living with her sister’s husband.  In one scene in which Stanley confronts her, she allows him to get so close that he puts his knee between her legs and she will not flinch as they are eye to eye.  In another scenario this shot would have lead to passionate lovemaking. 

What traumas are motivating Blanche who seems to have an incessant need for male approval?  The constant death and dying that she lived with in her childhood home, which triggers an even more poignant moment in her life, the suicide of her young husband, a man she adored.  One day she discovered him having a sexual relationship with another man in her own home.  She did not immediately react.  Shortly after, the three of them went to a dance where she reveals what she has seen and tells him how he disgusts her.  After this announcement he runs out to the lake and shoots himself.  She has never forgiven herself for this intentional cruelty and hates intentional cruelty in others and Stanley epitomizes what she loathes.  

I wondered how this production would deal with the rape scene, since Blanche participates in this dangerous apache dance.  It seems almost benign compared to the movie.  In drunkenness Stanley and Blanche bicker, become a little physical, Stanley carries her to the bed and then Blanche passes out.  Stanley sleeps with her while she is in this condition. That is the crime—she is passive because she is unconscious and unconsenting.  After this she has a breakdown.

Dignity remains somewhere deep inside Blanche, even at the end, when she is broken with her hands pinned behind her back.  She asks to be released from the matron?  She is resigned to her fate, and walks out of the house bare foot, dressed only in a slip.  But —there is a trace of Blanche’s dignity.  If you have ever dealt with someone who suffers from mental illness they do not entirely disappear.  There is still a piece of themselves that shines through and reveals itself.  

Her sister, with newborn baby in tow obviously distraught, whispers to her friend, “I couldn’t believe her (Blanche’s story that Stanley raped her) and still go on living with Stanley.”  Stella needs to have her own illusion about her husband if she can stand to live with him.  All humans do.  [We overlook those nagging habits and tensions that develop when we have close quarters and intimacies or we wouldn’t be able to tolerate each other.] 

—And once again, Blanche is abandoned by those she loves.  So she deliberately depends on the kindness of this new male stranger, her cyclical behavior and destiny complete.

This article was originally published in the Jan. 8, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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