Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Streetcar Named Desire, QUT Gardens Theatre 18 - 25 March 2010

(Tennesee Williams)

A few weeks ago Briztix requested a review of A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams, directed by Leonard Meenach, and featuring QUT's third-year actors. What you see below are my responses to some of the review questions that will be published online next week. Enjoy!

A Streetcar Named Desire first opened on Broadway six years before second-wave feminism began to dismantle defined gender roles in the home and workplace. Back in 1947 tangible freedoms were yet to be realised by the likes of Blanche DuBois, an ageing southern belle from Mississippi, and her sister Stella, living in New Orleans with husband Stanley. Both of these characters represent a generation of women who had long suffered under entrenched sexual double standards, traces of which still remain today in our own communities. Streetcar shocked and disturbed audiences back in the 40s because it was the first American play to expose a strong sexuality at the core of its female characters, attracting negative criticism from America’s Legion of Decency. Even for today's audience the play has the potential to be equally contentious. Blanche’s predilection for romancing young boys, we’re talking teenagers here, would strike a chord for anyone familiar with current debates surrounding the sexualisation of children in our society. Streetcar opens with Blanche seeking shelter under her sister's roof in the hope of escaping her tainted reputation back home, but I will stop the narrative here to avoid plot spoilers for those who will attend the QUT Gardens Theatre production of Streetcar this week.

What did you like about the performance?
Hilary Caitens, playing Blanche, manages to achieve what any good actor should achieve. She makes her character empathetic. Initially when she walked on stage I let out a quiet guffaw of disbelief that such a young woman could be cast in such an ageing role. But after some settling in Caitens makes the vain and pretentious Blanche a completely believable character with the help of her lofty style and grandiloquent gesturing. I couldn't help wondering how Caitens sourced and developed the highly convincing mannerisms of a much older woman. What is also remarkable is that even the southern dialect of Blanche appeared flawlessly consistent and effortless for this duplicitous character adept at concealing her advanced age and dark past. It is Caitens’ protean ability to shift between doleful frailty, audacious coquetry, despair, and unchecked rage that lends her performance a kind of manic quality as Blanche descends into madness.

What didn’t you like about the performance?
I think any actor taking on the role of Stanley would be aware of Marlon Brando’s long shadow cast from his menacing performance in the film version of Streetcar released in 1951. It is not just the stage actor, but also the audience that holds Brando’s interpretation of Stanley firmly in the front of their mind. The situation is simply unavoidable when an audience is exposed to yet another adaptation of a work carrying significant cultural value accumulated from exposure to generations past.

(Marlon Brando in film version of Streetcar 1951)

With this history in mind, you could forgive me for expecting Nathaniel Middleton (Stanley) to convey the same irascible, cocksure performance that Brando delivered as a hulking, enfant terrible, battling to restore balance to his household. Instead, Middleton shows us a weaker version of the original Stanley. His presence on stage failed to exude the kind of threat that could break Blanche down and violently consume her in the penultimate bottle-smashing scene. His voice didn’t project as strongly as his fellow cast members, leaving the impression of a less than overwhelming character that works against Williams’ intention for the role. You see, Stanley is supposed to challenge not only Blanche, but the politeness and values she embodies as a relic from a fading agrarian aristocracy. Overall, it is a shame that Middleton does not manifest the rough strength of the rising underclass that is crucial for bringing a thrilling tension to his relationship with Blanche.

What was the audience’s reaction to the performance?

Some of the best scenes were those that made the audience laugh. Middleton does well to reveal the humorous side of Stanley’s limited intellect, especially during the scenes where his character is talking out of his depth about property law, or the quality of Blanche’s jewels and furs. Taiyo Hara (Mitch) and Caitens also do well to bring out the awkwardness of their courtship ritual, which was warmly met with hoots of laughter from the audience. On exiting the theatre I couldn’t help but overhear fellow audience members speak favourably about Caitens’ performance. It seems my gushing praise for her portrayal of Blanche was shared by others that night.

Was there anything remarkable about costume and set design?
I think it is worth noting that costume and set design coincides with the era in which the play was written. I think this approach has its advantages in allowing theatre to do what it does best--recreate and expose the historical roots of the narrative, while also shedding light on the provenance of today’s social mores and customs. Perhaps for the sake of historical accuracy Stella should have worn stockings and suspenders instead of the seamless nylon pantyhose that were not sold publicly until well over a decade after the period in which the play was set.

Why should we go and see this show?
After reading Streetcar in one sitting just one week before the performance, I found the actors brought out elements of humour that I had entirely missed on my first reading. This in itself is a pressing reason to see the play performed live whenever the opportunity arises. Another reason to see the play is that many of the actors' performances match those that you would find in any Queensland Theatre Company, or La Boite Theatre Company production-–but for half the price.