All becomes clear

Issue 

Review by Mark Stoyich

A Streetcar Named Desire
Ensemble Theatre Company
The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Until March 4

Once again, Tennessee Williams' clanking streetcar goes up and down the French quarter through one old street after another. Though one of the greatest post-war US plays, it's not the greatest (that's probably Death of a Salesman). It is, however, the best known today.

Quick test: try to quote a line from Look Back in Anger, or any other important 1950s play. But almost everyone can recall "Whoever you are, I have always relied on the kindness of strangers"; or at least a man in a singlet bellowing "Stella!". Certainly, Streetcar is the only modern play to have been performed in an episode of The Simpsons.

The reason for this is probably the movie version, with Vivian Leigh and Marlon Brando. The fame of this film created an audience for any subsequent production, but it also created a problem.

Brando's portrayal of Stanley Kowalski was the first time in human history that a man had been displayed as a sex object, attractive not for his nice smile or well-cut suit like previous movie stars, but for his muscularity and brute force. This bit of rough trade hung around in the public imagination as an archetype of masculine beauty and now, of course, reigns supreme.

So what should a modern stage production do about Stanley? In the '90s, you expect a theatre company — especially in Sydney — to use a gym-produced hunk, which would be good box office but not make much sense as a working-class Joe in the '40s.

Stanley has to be desirable, enough so that his wife Stella would want to stay with him despite his deliberate cruelty to her sister Blanche. But it is to the Ensemble production's credit that it used an old-fashioned looking, believably brawny actor (Simon Westaway).

This Stanley is not the autonomous brute that Brando played. He is a little vulnerable, a little more sympathetic. There is also a suggestion that he's attracted to Blanche, as well as being jealous of the attention she's getting from Stella. In Brando's version, Stanley seems to crush Blanche merely because he's strong and she's fragile.

The other great character, a meal for any actress (or actor in drag, for that matter) is, of course, Blanche du Bois. Blanche is as unlikely as she is believable: partly the last gasp of the Southern belle tradition and partly Williams himself.

Desire and its opposite, death, haunt Blanche and bring her downfall. "I have only one major theme for all my work", Williams said, "the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, non-conformist individual".

But it isn't only Blanche who is destroyed in this play. The reason for Blanche's turn towards promiscuous sex and alcohol, and her growing madness, is fudged in the movie version; it isn't clear why her young and beautiful husband, many years before ran out of the ballroom onto the terrace and blew his head off in the middle of a Chopin waltz.

In the original, Stella tells Stanley that Blanche's husband was a "degenerate", a code word of the time for homosexual, and Blanche describes entering a room which she thought was empty, "but which contained two people — my husband and another person". Later, on the ballroom floor, Blanche let slip a cruel remark that drove the poor tormented young boy ... etc.

So, Blanche's destruction may be seen as the result of her own guilt at not having answered her husband's pleas for help and understanding, even a sort of justice. After all, as Blanche says, the one unforgivable thing is not promiscuity but deliberate cruelty.

All this becomes clear in Ensemble's fine production, and all credit is due to Carol Willesee's portrayal of Blanche and Sandra Bate's direction.

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