Festival Review: A Streetcar

by Jane

This review was originally published on ArtsHub

We begin Krzysztof Warlikowski’s A Streetcar perhaps somewhere after Tennessee Williams left off – Blanche (Isabelle Huppert) sits in a metal stool on a platform encased in glass walls, chrome fixtures, and fluorescent lights. Her body writhes, hands flapping, head moving around in all directions, eyes unfocused as her mouth sloppily chews, crumbs falling down her chin. Behind her, the black and white projected image of a close up on her face, her physical struggle filmed and recorded in real time.

The opening lines of Williams’ play begin: voiced in foreign French, but familiar in the surtitles, much seemingly taken word for word from the original. As Blanche asks for directions in Elysian Fields, and as she finds herself with Stella (Florence Thomassin) for the first time since losing Belle Reve, Huppert’s Blanche still sits, in her own world. She is part of these conversations, but only just.

Then, the Blanche of that world is lost, and she exists in the world of the play as we know it.

Warlikowski’s interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire takes Williams’ original text, melds it with some lines new inserted throughout the text, reassigns some of the text to different cast members, and melds it with audience address and retelling of Greek myths.

When A Streetcar works it works very well, and these scenes are typically where the show holds closest to Williams’ text, and shows Warlikowski’s power in interpreting a script though molding his actor’s performance. It’s in the interjoining scenes where occasionally the work loses its way.

When the production shows us Williams’ original text, Warlikowski has created for us A Streetcar filled with tension. Much of the laughs and humour have been removed from the presentation of the text, the underlying menace brought to the surface. Even in scenes where the humour is present in the dialogue, underlying this often is Pawel Mykietyn’s piano chords, dissonance between notes sitting uncomfortably in our ears. What we end up with is a near unrelenting tension and pressure on the audience, as we’re not allowed to relax into the work, but must sit on edge with it.

The true strength in the production is in the performances. The work has been marketed on Huppert’s performance, and rightly so. She is a powerhouse of emotion and passion. With our introduction to her at a point of insanity it is easy for her to be unlikable, and indeed, in many ways she is; Huppert’s Blanche alternates in our minds between a place of sympathy, and more often, a place of abject fascination.

Blanche isn’t the only character Warlikowski direction has pushed to extremes. Andrzej Chyra’s Stanley is acerbic and despicable right off the bat, and there is no doubt or confusion in his hatred of Blanche and his obsession in his own masculinity. Strong in physicality and in will, Chyra’s performance is powerful.

Interestingly though, we see this Stanley paired with a, in many ways, very strong willed Stella. Far from the waif or wallflower that we often see in Stella, Thomassin is, in some ways, as brash as her husband. Warlikowski has her return to her husband not as an act of submissive love, but as an act of power: this Stella knows what her husband does to her, and we are told she relishes in it. The enjoyment she pulls from the experience blurs the line between rape and consensual sex, and this makes it in some ways the final moments of the play all the more harder to watch as she chooses her husband, whose power she relishes in, over her sister.

It is when Warlikowski moves too far away from William’s characters and text into radical interpretation that the work loses its way a little. Several musical numbers placed between scenes go on for too long; and at one stage in particular we watch Stanley drawing on Stella’s skin with coal, as we must sit through an altogether too long Greek myth, and watch Blanche writhe in the video footage.

These scenes really reach their breaking point, however, towards the end of the 150 minutes without an interval. As lines of text roll up the whole of the stage (all together seemingly of not enough importance to engage with) and Renate Jett (in the expanded roll of Eunice) sings, patience begins to wear: those of us who know the text know we have just one scene to go, why on earth would it take so long to get to it?

In some ways, these intervening scenes offer a reprieve from the tension of Warlikowski’s interpretation: but without these scenes, would the show be short enough so reprieve wasn’t called upon?

The work is mainly easy to follow, but some elements become confused in the presentation. Without knowledge of the work and thus the working class lives of Stella and Stanley, designer Malgorzata Szczesniak’s wide stage of polished lines and expensive presentation can easily confuse matters, particularly in the audiences’ interpretation in the source of Stanley’s tension with Blanche. Non-representational (the background of the set is largely comprised of bowling alleys), it is still a large ask of non-French speaking audiences who aren’t aware of the text to understand the class issues to which Williams’ text speaks of.

At the opening night of the performance at the Adelaide Festival, A Streetcar had several major errors in the surtitling. Particularly at the top of the show, surtitles weren’t displayed at all while a mouse cursor arrow flickered around the screens, or, during a monologue by Blanche they were flicked through at such breakneck speed (in a glitch or an attempt to catch up?) that the audience were not able to follow and dissolved into titters. The text, which should have been copyedited before playing to an audience, was littered with spelling mistakes.

It is unfortunate such a technical misstep would affect the work, and in some ways highlight the bigger inconsistencies within the piece. From the front of the stalls, the strength in interpretation of character from both Warlikowski and his cast more than made up for the weaknesses in other places. How the balance between elements would play out to the back of the 2000 seat Adelaide Festival Theatre might be another matter all together.

The Adelaide Festival presents Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe’s A Streetcar, based on A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee WIlliams.  Directed and adapted by Krzysztof Warlikowski, translation by Wajdi Mouawad, adapted in collaboration with Piotr Gruszczywski.  With Isabelle Huppert, Andrzej Chyra, Florence Thomassin, Yann Collette, Renate Jett and Cristian Soto.  In the Adelaide Festival Theatre, 14/03/12