Monday, August 31, 2009
Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann: A Street Car Named Desire
Brando – drunk, sweating and on his knees – howling for his pregnant wife to take him back is an indelible part of our popular culture. Just as Romeo and Juliet gripped the Elizabethans, Tennessee Williams's drama A Streetcar Named Desire has blazed across stage and screen for decades.
It's been made into an opera (by Andre Previn), a ballet and three films, most famously by director Elia Kazan in 1951, with Brando, Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter in the leads. Pedro Almodovar's award-winning film All about My Mother features a Spanish-language version of the play. Matt Groenig has nominated A Streetcar Named Marge as his all-time favourite episode of The Simpsons. Even Sesame Street has presented A Streetcar Named Monster, with Grover bellowing to Stella to let him in because he's forgotten his keys.
Williams regarded the work as a “tragedy of misunderstandings and insensitivity”. Cate Blanchett – who is about to step on to the stage as the bourbon-soaked, sexual predator Blanche DuBois in a new Sydney Theatre Company production – describes it as a “big, aching wound” of a play. “The writing is so beautiful and poetic but the shadow side to that is an incredible ugliness,” she says.
The clock was set on this production – directed by the celebrated film actress Liv Ullmann – by Robyn Nevin, who secured the rights for the play during her tenure as artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company. Nevin always had Blanchett in mind for Blanche. But the timing wasn't right for Blanchett – until now.
“Robyn had mentioned years ago that she had the rights when we were talking about doing Hedda Gabler and I thought, 'Oooh, no,' ” says Blanchett. “And then I met Liv in London – and I'd been desperate to work with her – and we were talking about various projects for quite some time and then Andrew [Upton, co-artistic director at the STC] brought up Streetcar. Suddenly the temperature in the room changed.”
Ullmann remembers the moment well. “When Andrew said that, I was thrilled," she says. "I had been thinking about it before I met Cate but I thought she would be much too young for the role, so I never talked about it.”
Ullmann, 70, is best known as muse to Ingmar Bergman, appearing in nine of his films, including Scenes from a Marriage and The Emigrants. She says watching Blanchett in rehearsals has been thrilling.
“As an actress, I played many wonderful roles but I never had the chance to play Blanche. But I know from the bottom of my soul that I would never be the kind of Blanche she is. Cate is making choices that I would never have thought of. Even if I don't say a word as the director, it is all magically happening in front of me. When I watch Cate, the hairs stand up on my arms.” Her voice softens and her eyes suddenly fill with tears.
“I admire Cate tremendously,” Ullmann says. “And if my eyes have tears that is because what she is doing in the rehearsal room is so magical.”
THE film and stage director Bruce Beresford – who directed the opera for Opera Australia in 2007 – laughs when asked what the play's appeal is. “Sex!” he says. “It's very, very powerful writing about human desire and that's what makes it so timeless. Those kinds of universal passions are not going to fizzle out in a hurry.”
The director, Benedict Andrews, who presented a stripped-back production of the play in Berlin in May, goes one step further. “All the characters in Streetcar are objects of desire for Tennessee Williams. It's like he's in drag and he either wanted to be them or f--- them.”
The story's anti-heroine is Blanche DuBois, a fragile Southern belle visiting her younger sister Stella (played in the forthcoming production by Robin McLeavy), now living in a seedy district of New Orleans. The sisters are scions of the old South, a family of plantation owners from Laurel, Mississippi. But Blanche is now broke, half-crazed with grief, a fantasist, a drunk. Stella's sexually aggressive husband, Stanley (Joel Edgerton), a working-class car parts salesman, is contemptuous of and attracted to his sister-in-law.
Booze, lust and madness in the steamy heat of New Orleans bring the trio undone.
“To understand the play, you have to delve into the man,” Blanchett says. “Tennessee Williams writes beautifully for women because the mask of writing for a female character is how he really expressed himself.”
Williams wrote the play in 1945 and when it was first produced on Broadway in 1947 the director Elia Kazan shrewdly noted that Blanche was really a self-portrait of the playwright. Williams, too, was a Mississippian – a man who drifted from one homosexual relationship to another – and tormented by the loss of his beloved sister, Rose, to madness. His alcohol and drug consumption was the stuff of legend.
“He's a man who is really crying out of his heart,” Ullmann says. “What he really wants people to know is that we must truly see each other and recognise each other. He has so much compassion for his characters and he never judges Blanche or Stanley. He wrote a letter to his mother saying, 'I am Stanley, too.' This violent, ape-like man is the kind of man he often ran after. It's what attracted him.”
Blanchett and Ullmann are acutely aware that audiences will be familiar with the 1951 film and the towering performances of Brando and Leigh. Rather than swerve away from its influence, they embrace it.
Ullmann's production will be a faithful recreation of 1940s New Orleans, awash with the blues music that Williams was listening to as he wrote the play. The apartment Blanche will share with Stella and Stanley will be cramped and claustrophobic. Only a flimsy curtain will separate them, as it did in Kazan's film.
“There are very, very few theatre texts that are masterpieces that also exist as a classic in film form,” Blanchett says. “I personally don't think the two mediums are mutually exclusive but the challenge in this particular case is to lift that text out from under the shadow of the film.”
Ullmann agrees. “I love the film and I admire the work of Elia Kazan. I can see no reason why we should deliberately ignore the film. But Cate and I talked about it and we know that sometimes in the theatre there can be a close-up that is even more magical than a close-up in a film because it is an incredible moment that is happening right now in front of you.”
As powerful as the film was, Beresford says the play was so shocking when it was first produced that censorship in Hollywood forced the film's producers to drop the more controversial scenes. “In the movie they deleted all reference to Blanche's affair with a 17-year-old schoolboy and anything about her finding her first husband in bed with another man. It weakened the film horribly and took a lot of the punch away from her character,” he says. “But I'm sure in this production of the play, they'll really go for broke.”
Andrews certainly didn't hold back in his Berlin production. His modern-day, German-speaking Blanche entered from the street through a door at the back of the theatre, staggering in broken high heels. She sprayed herself between the legs with perfume, changed outfits on stage, cigarette in mouth, bottle in hand.
“Our conceit was that she had already fallen as low as she could go and we watch the catastrophe of her drinking and madness increase during a series of monologues that are a bit like psychoanalytical sessions,” he says, adding that he felt liberated by doing the play in German instead of re-creating American Southern accents.
“The play runs the risk of being a sentimental museum piece. It has such a life force and I don't see the point in recreating it over and over as a period piece and have it lose its sting,” Andrews says. “We have to ask ourselves why return to it? And how are we returning to it? It's really the story of the collapse of a great woman. She has exceeded the limits of what society will allow and it makes us ask, 'How do we tolerate the bits of ourselves that are excessive?' ”
Ullmann believes the play is a long way from the museum. “I think it's more alive than ever. The theatre is still the place where you can go and see the truth about what it means to be alive and how important it is to listen and to see and to recognise each other.”
Posted by Chris Mansel at 5:15 PM