A Streetcar Named Desire: Sydney Theatre Company

Set in a seedy tenement house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the play (A Streetcar Named Desire) takes its name from the streetcar that delivers Blanche to the door of her sister's home on Elysian Fields (a reference to the final resting place of the gods in Greek mythology).
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A Streetcar Named Desire: Sydney Theatre Company

The role of Blanche DuBois, the aging Southern belle in Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire, confronts the actor playing it with some daunting challenges. The play, written in 1945, was etched into popular consciousness by the 1951 film of the same name, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Vivien Leigh as Blanche and Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, the by turns brooding and impulsively violent husband of Blanche’s younger sister, Stella. Leigh, who won an Oscar for her performance, created a character that became a benchmark for the role. The first challenge for any actor playing Blanche is to negotiate a way through the popular cliché that is Blanche DuBois.

Set in a seedy tenement house in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the play takes its name from the streetcar that delivers Blanche to the door of her sister’s home on Elysian Fields (a reference to the final resting place of the gods in Greek mythology). It is desire, Williams suggests in the title of the play, which compels the alcoholic Blanche to leave the small town of Laurel where she and Stella grew up on the family estate and where Blanche has been working as an English teacher. (Tellingly, to reach Stella’s house Blanche actually transfers from Desire to a streetcar called Cemeteries). When Stanley arrives home from work to find the preening, flirtatious sister-in-law it is immediately clear that the desire in question is intended by Williams to be sexual, as indeed it was in the Kazan film and is, almost reflexively, in most productions of the play. The second challenge facing the actor playing Blanche, therefore, is how to deal with this undercurrent of desire in the play. A similar challenge faces the actor playing Stanley who is invariably cast for his capacity to project a threatening masculinity, as intended by Williams in the text.

The Sydney Theatre Company production of A Streetcar Named Desire is directed by one of the world’s great actors of stage and screen, Liv Ullmann, and stars Cate Blanchett (coincidentally, ‘Little Blanche’ in French) and Joel Edgerton as Stanley. It is this triumvirate that dominates the interpretation of one of the classic pieces of psychological realism in the western dramatic canon. The role of Stella, played with verve and subtlety by Robin McLeavy, struggles to compete with the iconic central characters. From the moment Cate Blanchett appears on stage clutching her white valise in her white gloved hand, waiting in nervous expectation outside Stella’s house, we know, by sheer force of feeling, that Blanche DuBois has been redefined. When she speaks her first words the voice strikes with the jolting certainty of a great actor in full possession of her character. This is not Hollywood gloss or star born charisma. Blanchett arrives on stage fully engaged, both technically and emotionally, in the job at hand. Very few screen actors are capable of bringing such complete presence to the brutal immediacy of the stage. Edgerton shines as Stanley in a performance that, in the long shadow of Brando, reveals the emotional frailty so often the hidden cause of male anger and aggression. He exudes a sexual potency that is counterpointed by a calculating streak intent on getting to the real reason Blanche has appeared on his doorstep and how he might benefit from it. Despite his little boy vulnerability there is a callousness in him that makes it easy to throw Blanche away once he has exhausted the possibilities she presents.

What distinguishes this production as unique are the choices Ullmann and Blanchett have made for Blanche. Leaving behind the clichés and the audience expectations of the play they deliver Blanche as a woman who, despite knowing how to use it to bolster her brittle vanity, does not want sex, who in fact is repulsed by it when the opportunity is presented in the flesh. Her inevitable coupling with Kowalski is violent, sordid and empty. Their greatest shared passion is for the bottle. This Blanche, like others before her, wants affection, tenderness and understanding but, above all, she seeks and ultimately finds redemption, release from the past, from the person she had become. Having flounced and flaunted her way through life she is a woman whose identity, in the end, has fractured to the point of insanity and yet she leaves the stage bathed in a transcendent glow, wrapped in a blue shawl (the same colour as the Madonna’s she tells us at one point), a tainted soul looking to heaven.

The cast of this production are uniformly well chosen and give convincing performances. The costumes (Tess Schofield), the evocative, functional stage set (Ralph Myers) and Nick Schlieper’s lighting design support the conventional period setting chosen by Ullmann. The atmosphere is steamy, at times oppressive, just as it should be. Paul Charlier plays effectively with the use of sound as an expression of the subjective states of the characters, especially Blanche. The program notes refer to the importance Williams assigned to the blues, to defining black musicians like Son House and JB Lenoir but I heard very little authentic New Orleans blues in the choice of music. Alan Johns’s off-stage piano was a good idea but not soulful enough to be effective as anything more than vaguely atmospheric ‘theatre music’.

Cate Blanchett and Liv Ullmann have redefined Blanche DuBois and, in doing so, have ushered this fading beauty of a play into the present in a production that gracefully unmasks a desperate, existential emptiness in an increasingly alcohol fuelled, sexualised Australian culture. Desire is shown here in a new and penetrating light.

A Streetcar Named Desire: Sydney Theatre Company
By Tennessee Williams

3 hours 15 mins including interval

Tickets for A Streetcar Named Desire are currently sold out. Should returned tickets become available, they will be released for sale online from 11am on the day of performance.

Captioned Performances: Wednesday 30 September 1pm, Friday 2 October 8pm
Bookings via email to:

5 September – 17 October

Boris Kelly
About the Author
Boris Kelly is a Sydney-based writer.