Sunday, November 08, 2009

This Blanche-tt Doesn't Need Our Kindness, Thanks

The other night, I saw Cate Blanchett play Blanche DuBois at the Kennedy Center in D.C. She’s the marquee name in a touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire staged by the Sydney Theatre Company (which Blanchett and her husband co-direct) and directed by Liv Ullmann (aka Ingmar Bergman’s muse).

Blanchett aside, it’s a solid, perfectly respectable, unexceptional production. The staging isn’t particularly imaginative, but then Streetcar isn’t a play that needs much visual pizzazz. Joel Edgerton is quite good as the crudely territorial Stanley; the rest of the cast is competent, though some of them struggle a bit with the accents.

But what about Blanchett? Was she an iconic Blanche?

Well, she gave a strong performance. “Strong,” indeed, may be the operative word here: as an actress, Blanchett radiates such natural strength that I wasn’t sure how she’d play a woman I think of as, if not weak, certainly fragile and very, very damaged. She got around that difficulty by choosing to highlight Blanche’s theatricality – not a bad choice, considering the character is nothing if not the textbook drama queen. But as a consequence, her Blanche flies her freak flag a little earlier than I was expecting. This may well be by design; I’m just accustomed to thinking of Blanche DuBois as a woman who unravels by degrees, and is finally pushed over the edge when she sees her last, slender hope dashed. Blanchett does effectively capture her character’s caged desperation, though her voice would occasionally take on a steely resonance that, while thrilling, I couldn’t help thinking would easily cow even the most brutish Stanley Kowalski. In the end, of course, she’s broken, even though the rape scene isn’t staged as an unambiguous rape. One touch I liked was a brief tableau, shortly after the deed, showing Stanley passed out and Blanche sitting on the far side of the bed, her back to the audience. The slump of her shoulders in that moment conveyed more than the entire final scene that followed.

All in all, it was an impressive star turn by an impressive actress, if not quite the interpretation of the character I had in mind. When she was on stage, it was impossible to take one’s eyes off her—and isn’t that all that ultimately matters?


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