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Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois in the Sydney Theatre Company production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," directed by Liv Ullmann, 2009. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Notes on Blanchett's Blanche
By Jonathan Kalb

A Streetcar Named Desire
By Tennessee Williams
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St., Brooklyn
Box office: (718) 636-4100

Cate Blanchett has not been short of accolades for her performance as Blanche Dubois in the Sydney Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Liv Ullmann and now visiting BAM. The praise has been profuse and prolonged--deservedly so, as this is surely one of this astonishing actress' most accomplished and difficult performances. I see no reason to add to the general encomium, but I would like to offer a few specific observations about it. Once in a great while, a performer's work is so original and luminous that it actually alters our understanding of a famous and beloved play. Here are four thoughts about Blanchett's achievement.

1. In all previous productions of Streetcar I'm aware of, Blanche's effete southern-belle act was for the most part understandable. That is to say, it was pretentious, to be sure, but also plausible as a species of southern eccentricity--amusing to others in the play, even persuasive at times, which meant that one could believe that Blanche might eventually find sanctuary in Williams's "raffish," tolerant and bluesy New Orleans. No such possibility exists in Ullmann's production. Her New Orleans is a bleak, claustrophobic place, a visually flattened sanctum for blunted sensibilities, where Blanche's belle act has no social traction whatever. No one believes it from the start, so she is left looking all the more hopelessly adrift in a remarkably ugly world. I strongly suspect that this uniquely unsentimental view came easier to a Norwegian director and Australian actress than it would to Americans brought up to romanticize everything about the Big Easy.

2. In all previous productions of Streetcar I'm aware of, the action as a whole was treated as a quasi-Darwinian struggle for survival between two opposing natures, a quietly epic showdown between rough and crude Stanley and refined and delicate Blanche that ended in a sort of sexual death-clutch. This is the legacy of Marlon Brando, who twisted Tennessee Williams's intentions by stealing the limelight for Stanley when the play was conceived as a portrait of Blanche, an exploration of her uniquely fascinating and fantastic nature. Joel Edgerton as Stanley Kowalski and Cate Blanchett as Blanche Dubois in the Sydney Theatre Company production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," directed by Liv Ullmann. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti.Blanchett restores that original profile to the play, playing a character whose complexity transcends description as a polar opposite of anyone or anything. There is nothing weak or unduly subordinate about Joel Edgerton's Stanley, mind you. Edgerton gives a marvelous performance, but it's clear at all times that his character is an instrument of the killing environment, not a co-equal antagonist to Blanche. This is her story, just as exclusively as if Williams had written it as an Expressionist drama with only one real character.

3. Notwithstanding her emotional isolation, Blanchett's Blanche is as nuanced and specific as one could imagine--thoroughly and heartbreakingly plausible. Unlike Vivien Leigh and countless other actresses who have luxuriated in Blanche's glamour, Blanchett is wholly plausible as a former prostitute. One has no trouble believing she was truly degraded back in her home town, despite her poise and elegance. She is a veritable skein of underconfidence, never quite comfortable in her skin or her flashy clothes, and she never flirts with the audience as if they were surrogates for Mitch, as many other actresses do. Blanchett speaks and flirts with an offhand self-consciousness suggesting that even she thinks she's affected. Her haughty and brittle desperation reminds me of Baudelaire's romantic pontifications: "Nothing that exists satisfies me. Nature is ugly, and I prefer the monsters of my fancy to what is positively trivial." There's an inner panic surrounding her like a dirt cloud, which grows more and more visible as the play goes on and she wears out her welcome at the Kowalskis'.

4. Blanchett restores terror to the play by performing Blanche's final downfall as if it were a tragic choice, not the conquest of a helpless victim. Her fall seems inevitable yet chosen, like those Greek heroes Nietzsche describes who yowl a defiant "yes" in the face of the power that crushes them. Blanchett makes Blanche's destruction seem step-wise, a sort of anti-pilgrim's progress, rather than a chaotic tumble. She moves methodically from Blanche's flirtations with Mitch and Stanley, to her ineffectual self-justifications and confessions with Stella, Mitch and Stanley, to her final "date" with Stanley. Eccentric and panicked as she is, this woman knows what she's doing at all times, especially in the so-called "rape scene," which reads here, shockingly, as an act of courage. For Ullmann and Blanchett, it seems, Blanche voluntarily surrenders to her attack. Is that choice less touchy for a female director? Perhaps--it certainly preserves a sense of agency for Blanche while she is going under. In any case, her madness in the closing scene that follows feels curiously self-preservative. In the end, Blanchett, her face not quite a blank, wanders to an isolated corner of the apron as a final spotlight on her fades to black. Madness for her is clearly just another sanctuary to hole up in while the world figures out how to accommodate its misfits. We can all hold our breath for that.


Photos copyright: Lisa Tomasetti


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