Forget swine flu—is madness contagious? You might think so, after watching the Sydney Theatre Company’s riveting version of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. Running at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., through November 21, and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from November 27 to December 20, the production—staged by Norwegian actress and director Liv Ullmann—presents such a vivid portrait of a crumbling psyche that you could swear the derangement is rubbing off on you.
Ostensibly, of course, the unsound mind in Williams’s 1947 masterpiece belongs to the affected, sexually desperate Southern spinster Blanche DuBois, who pays a long-term visit to her younger sister, Stella, and uncouth brother-in-law, Stanley—with tragic results. In Ullmann’s production, Blanche is played with gale-force intensity by film star Cate Blanchett, who happens to be the co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company (with her husband, Andrew Upton). Blanchett makes her character’s emotional and mental fragility achingly apparent from the moment she first walks onstage, looking lost and a little eccentric in white suit, shoes, hat, and gloves, clutching a white suitcase. When she pulls out a compact to powder her nose, her hands and arms are shaking.
The pathetically odd figure seems to pull herself together a little after her reunion with Stella (Robin McLeavy) in the latter’s shabby two-room New Orleans apartment (rendered memorably bleak by set designer Ralph Myers, who tops the interior with a high façade-like wall that radiates urban anomie). Blanchett makes it clear that Blanche functions better when she has an audience—when she can spin tales about the DuBois family’s lost mansion, Belle Reve, and her own romantic notions (“I can’t stand a naked light bulb any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action”). As long as someone gullible, or at least tolerant, is around, she can flirt, feign girlishness, act haughty, and knock back liquor while pretending to be a near-teetotaler. It’s when her fictions have been debunked, and listeners like her beau Mitch (Tim Richards) and Stella have turned against her, that this aging belle really falls apart. In the play’s last scene, Blanchett’s cringing, bewildered Blanche clutches the hand of the doctor (Russell Kiefel) with such evident anguish that her famous line about the “kindness of strangers” conveys not even a tinge of hope.
Blanchett’s feverish, eggshell-brittle exhibitionist contrasts wonderfully with McLeavy’s comparatively placid, healthy, and childlike Stella. It has become a commonplace to observe that the legacy of Marlon Brando—who played Stanley in the 1947 Broadway production and the famous movie—looms dauntingly over any actor who tackles the role. In the Sydney Theatre staging, Joel Edgerton doesn’t beat the odds—his intonations echo Brando’s too closely. But he does allow a nice hint of psychosis to creep into his portrayal. When this Stanley tosses a radio out the window during a poker game, or swans around in his dressing gown while taunting Blanche, his mental health seems almost as precarious as hers.
Ullmann (perhaps still best known for her roles in Ingmar Bergman films) artfully lets the specter of insanity haunt the whole production as the story nears its end. A crazed drum cadenza, underscoring one scene, suggests Blanche’s increasing disorientation. And a particularly thrilling moment brings the unexpected sound of a hurtling streetcar and a beam of harsh illumination, like a trolley’s headlight that floods the set—as if reality were cracking open to admit a nightmare. (Nick Schlieper designed the lighting and Paul Charlier the sound.)
These expressionistic touches work particularly well because of the phantasmagoric elements Williams wrote into his script: the Mexican woman (Gertraud Ingeborg) who shows up eerily hawking “Flores para los muertos,” for instance, or the symbolism of the DuBois sisters’ names (“Stella for star!” Blanche exclaims when she first greets her sibling), which gives even these central characters a touch of unreality. And then there are the references to the eponymous streetcar, which always sounds more like a metaphor or a myth than a means of transportation. Ullmann’s Streetcar will take you on a grip-your-seat ride toward delirium—but it’s definitely a journey you want to take.