A woman’s charm, as Blanche DuBois says, is 50 percent illusion. But the Sydney Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the BAM Harvey Theater, directed by Liv Ullmann, barely allows its Blanche even that meager allotment. The show has a dry, unblinking austerity that’s at odds with the fluttery audaciousness of Tennessee Williams’s greatest character, the aging, unraveling Southern belle Blanche DuBois, who moves into the cramped New Orleans flat of her pregnant sister, Stella Kowalski, and her brutish but sexually magnetic brother-in-law, Stanley. Williams’s view of Blanche is unsparing and empathetic. But Ullmann, who has a graceful star in Cate Blanchett, approaches the material as if it were a case study.
As Williams wrote her, Blanche is a feather doomed to the painfully ordinary fate of floating down to earth. Ullmann will have no floating here. Unvarnished and dour, right down to Ralph Myers’s aggressively bare Honeymooners-style set, the show is pedestrian when it should be poetic, and the actors rattle around in its spacious emptiness. Joel Edgerton’s Stanley, in particular, can’t find his footing. His well-oiled, eye-popping muscles are right for the part, but he plays Stanley, in all his crudeness, as if he were a lunkhead Edward Burns toughie from South Boston instead of a miserable beast who clings as tenaciously to his fantasy of male superiority as Blanche does to her tattered ideals.
Blanchett, on the other hand, is often touching, particularly in the first half. Physically, she’s a willowy presence suspended in a state of otherworldly isolation, like a figure in an Edward Hopper painting. Yet Blanchett assays the role like a jazz musician playing a standard and getting all the notes right, but failing to tease out the ghosts who live between the beats. And if any character is full of ghosts, it’s Blanche—not just ghosts of the actresses who have played her over the years, but of our expectations.
In the show’s final moments, Ullmann stresses Blanche’s vulnerability: Clad only in a flimsy slip, with bare feet, she’s yanked out of Stella and Stanley’s flat and their lives. The choice doesn’t make sense. Why would Stella—here played by Robin McLeavy—let the sister she adores leave the house half-dressed? Ullmann turns Blanche into an object of pity instead of drawing out that more complicated emotion, compassion. But Williams’s character doesn’t need any help suffering. The last thing she needs is to find herself in a naked lightbulb of a show.