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A Streetcar Named Desire – A Review

A Streetcar Named Desire Review

We (my partner and I) saw La Boite’s 2016 production of Streetcar the night after opening, which I think is a better night to get a feel for a production. Opening night nerves have dissipated, which can sometimes throw out the rhythm of a show, and you’re left with the production that was devised and nurtured in the rehearsal room. It was also a ‘schools night’, so the theatre was packed with the dewy-faced adults of tomorrow, and what’s nice about that is you’re reminded of what it’s like to see the play for the first time, to hear afresh William’s language spoken aloud. It’s hard to overstate how much I love this play. It’s my favourite of Tennessee Williams’s play (although Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a heel-nipping second), and Williams is the playwright that burrows into my soul and mind like no other playwright, including—dare I say it?—the Bard. So that’s one disclaimer before I start my review of this production of Streetcar, or what I’d rather term a ‘collection of impressions and thoughts’. If you’re after a synopsis of the play go here.

The other is that I played Blanche three years ago, so anything I say here is coloured by my experience of being inside, not only the play, but inside Blanche. And once you’ve been inside Blanche, it’s hard to ever be objectively outside her, in the role of an impartial observer, watching someone else inhabit her. Let’s be clear this not a jealousy thing—though I’d give something vital and irretrievable to play the role again—but rather a strange sense of permeability, of moving inside and outside of the character as you watch someone else play her. Being objectively conscious of the choices she (Carter) made, in both a general character sense, and on a line-by-line level (in comparison to your own), but also feeling yourself exposed and vulnerable with her out in the open on stage, rather than in the safe, dark space of the audience.

So on that note, let’s get one thing out of the way: Bridie Carter was an excellent Blanche. She in fact carried what was otherwise, on the whole, a middling production of Streetcar. But more on that later—let me wax lyrical about Carter for a moment. She made expressive, bold physical choices that played well to an audience in the round. She was forceful, cajoling, viperish, snarky, and charming when it suited her, and eminently watchable. In this regard, you could see her training as an actor at work, with only the occasional moments that felt broadcasted for the audience’s sake (usually in one of Blanche’s extended diatribes), rather than for, or in response to, the actor on stage with her. What I loved most about her Blanche, however, was the bravado she brought to the character, and that bravado worked very well in the first half. When I said as much to my partner at intermission (after Scene 6), he agreed but said you weren’t getting much of a sense of her vulnerability either. There were glimpses of the vulnerability underneath, but (as I also said to my partner) it’s in the second half that Blanche’s emotional fragility needs to come to the fore, and perhaps that’s what Carter was building towards: the ‘bravado’ gradually being stripped away.

So did we see the undoing of ‘Bravado Blanche’ in the second half? I’m going to go with a wishy-washy ‘yes and no’. Scenes 9 and 10 are where we witness Blanche’s breakdown. These scenes are a source of anxiety for any actress playing them because they are so easily done badly. That’s when the rehearsal process and an actor’s training and instincts really have to shift up a gear, and for Carter’s rendering of these scenes those things did back her up… but, there was also something missing, and I’m going to say that something was the vulnerability. The tipping into madness, losing grip on reality, Carter believably did all that, but I was never convinced we were seeing Carter stripped bear, exposing herself in that desperate, raw, fragile, flayed back way that Blanche becomes in those scenes. The bravado was still there, as was a sense of performance of those things, rather than actually doing them for real. She held something back, which may have been her choice, or maybe she just didn’t or couldn’t go there that night (which happens). Blanche has the potential to wreck havoc with the psyche if you let her (Exhibit A: Vivien Leigh), but I’ll say, also, what didn’t work about those scenes wasn’t really Carter’s fault. But more on that further down.

First up, let’s get the ‘accents’ out of the way. They’re usually the first thing audience members and reviewers alike comment on because they’re the easiest thing to pinpoint as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about an actor’s performance. Much like the multiracial casting (will also get to that), the accents were a bag of liquorice all-sorts. Only Carter maintained a flawless Southern accent from ‘They told me to take a streetcar named Desire…’ to—with many, many, many lines in between—‘I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers’. Her accent was impeccable, and you could hear and understand every word she said. The rest of the cast was not so praiseworthy. Trevor McMahon as Stanley seemed to be trying for a standard American, but it mostly sounded like some weird, garbled American-Australian hybrid. This was most excruciatingly evident when Stanley declares ‘and I’m a proud American’ with a fistful of flat Aussie vowels. Ngoc Phan as Stella used a southern accent, but there was never any sense of conviction about it (much like a lot of her performance), though it was passable. Colin Smith (Mitch), it seemed, made the sensible choice to use a standard American accent, rather than a distinctly southern one, but it lacked consistency. Then there was Eunice (Parmis Rose – a friend of daughter’s, incidentally), who channelled Estelle Costanza for an all out assault with a Brooklyn accent. In fairness though, Rose is not a trained actor and was primarily there for her skills as a keyboardist. Alexander Forero (in a strange role-switch situation with the minor character of Pablo) used his natural Colombian accent, though perhaps heightened for effect, to give Steve (Eunice’s husband) a ‘south of the border’ flavour, which actually worked well. Overall, bad and mediocre accents are forgivable in amateur productions, not so much in so called professional theatre, particularly when they apparently had an accent and dialect coach (Melissa Agnew — who I had as a voice teacher at QUT and does know her stuff).

But it wasn’t the dodgy accents alone that left me feeling this production was just ‘less’ than it should have been. As a whole it was underwhelming, particularly the second half, though whether this was due to the acting—which really boils down to casting—or the direction is harder to say. As Blanche’s counterpoint, Stanley has to match her in intensity every step of the way. McMahon got off to a decent start, and he looks the part (even with the out-of-period long hair), but in the second half he failed to convince. His menace, such as it was, lacked any real sense of danger, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the ‘rape scene’ was awkwardly staged. Vilma Mattila, the set designer, did the director and the actors no favours by putting a bedframe on the end of the bed, as opposed to just having a bedhead (the rest of her design though was topnotch). Jimmy Stewart was originally meant to play Stanley but was replaced by McMahon a few months out (probably for reasons related to Stewart’s Home and Away commitments). I’m no doubt in the minority when I say I wasn’t disappointed by Stewart’s no-show as Stanley—I can’t say I’m a fan—which is probably why I wanted McMahon to be better than he was. However, it was nice to see him do something other than Bert, the earnest and eager-to-please working-class everyman, in the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries series. My main gripe about his Stanley though was the utter lack of sexual chemistry between him and Ngoc Phan’s Stella.

So, Stella. How do I word this without #racist being applied? I’m not against multiracial casting at all, and I understand why ‘colour blind’ casting is a thing, and fully support why it is a thing. Given me a Somalian or a Kurdish Afghan Juliet any day. So the only thing I’ll say here is that even in the universe called ‘the magic of theatre’ it’s a big sell to make us believe Ngoc Phan and Bridie Carter are sisters with the same biological parents (of the French-extracted landed Southern-gentry type, no less). When it comes to Williams, I suppose I’m a purist, probably more than I care to admit (which also applies to messing with time and place when staging his plays). So now that’s been said, I want to make it clear that it wasn’t Ngoc Phan’s unmistakable Asian-ness that made me think she just wasn’t that great as Stella. She was by no means awful. She delivered a competent and on-point performance, but it never rose above that. There would be half dozen actresses in Brisbane alone who could have done a lot more with a gift horse like Stella. I know this because I’ve seen a few of them, including Anna McGahan (in her final year at QUT) and the Stella I played opposite (VCA-trained Lia Davis) who owned the role like a bitch. Again I come back to the lack of chemistry between McMahon and Phan, which basically had to be manufactured through some slow-motion choreography after the big STELLA!!! moment. Other than that they were about as hot for each other as a chicken thigh and a banana in the same freezer.

And Mitch? This is tricky because I know Colin Smith and went to uni with him sometime last century. And I like him. He’s a good guy, and he’s been doing some killer work with the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble in recent years. Mitch is a wet blanket of a role and it can be hard to transcend that as an actor. Smith did okay, again he certainly wasn’t awful, and he captured the tenderness of Mitch nicely, but some of his choices felt a bit off key, and he just never looked very comfortable being uncomfortable, as Mitch is a lot of the time. Mitch’s climax in Scene 9 in the lead up to and when he attempts to force himself on Blanche—through either bad stage direction (blocking), under rehearsal, or just ‘safe’ choices—was clumsily executed and frankly a bit of a mess. It’s the one opportunity an actor playing Mitch really has to dig in and fire up and on this occasion it was largely tossed away. Like the rape scene, however, I wonder if the problem with this scene was more directorial.

The minor roles suffer from the fact that all the actors, bar Alexander Ferero as Steve (and the flower seller), were cast as musicians/singers first, then actors. I understand the logic behind this (saving money), but you never quite took them seriously: they stepped into the play to deliver their lines then stepped out again, though Rose’s Brooklyn-accented Eunice did provide some well-timed comic relief alongside Ferero’s flamboyant Mexicano Steve.

The live music, however, brought to you by the ‘rest of the cast’, was the thing that elevated this production (literally and figuratively) into something approximating professional theatre. The musical trio—Parmis Ross (keyboardist and Eunice); Guy Webster (sound design, composer, guitarist, plus Pablo, the Doctor and the Young Man); and Kristal West (vocals, plus Nurse and Woman)—were situated on an upper stage, reached by a set of stairs. This was also the ‘upstairs’ where Eunice and Steve live. West’s (a finalist on The Voice) moody, sometimes-New Orleans’s-inspired vocals (I did love her rendition of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’), were a bit of a treat and a worthy distraction between (sometimes longish) scene changes, even if they didn’t add much to the action on stage.

The set design, on that note, also deserves an honorable mention. What Mattila achieved, by elevating the small apartment space (as connected raked platforms) from the floor of the theatre, was a feeling of claustrophobia–an essential dynamic for the play–and instability: a kind a spatial foreshadowing of Blanche’s gradual loss of footing in reality. It was a sparse set: a bed, bedside table, bench (meant as Blanche’s ‘fold-out bed’), a table with four chairs/stools, and a small drinks caddy, but it forced the actors to work hard to ‘fill the space’, as it were. Having the bathroom on the opposite side next to the kitchen (essentially off stage beneath the stairs to Eunice and Steve’s apartment), rather than off the bedroom, created some logistical problems staging-wise, which, in turn, generated some moments of suspended disbelief for the audience. It got awkward at times. Ben Hughes’s lighting design was understated, suitably atmospheric–probably the only production element that really evoked the sultriness of the New Orlean’s setting–and the perfect complement to the set design.

One thing, and this is a credit to the actors and the director Todd MacDonald, that did impress was the pacing. The show never flagged; it ticked over at a consistently good clock, which for a play of around two and a half hours (11 scenes), minus the interval, is vital. It’s an easy play to let drag (said with the admission that I’ve been guilty of doing exactly that). What the actors hadn’t yet accommodated though was the audience’s laughter, but it was only second night.

I’ll finish by saying this production of Streetcar is worth seeing for Carter’s performance as Blanche—she really is very good—but without her (and West’s singing), there’s not a lot to rave about on the overall. It’s decent, but not great. Judging by most other reviews out there, however, I’m one of the few not enamoured by this particular production of ‘the greatest American play of all time’ (I think it’s a Brisbane thing — we’re too easily pleased). Cameron Pegg from The Australian seems to be the only reviewer who saw the same play I did : ‘Like its set, this production is a jumble of parts, performances and ideas that do not quite fit together.’ With this, I concur.

The woman who loved those yanks: The facts and fictions of Maureen C. Meadows and her ‘narration of that desire’

IMG_1904My academic article about Maureen C. Meadows and her 1948 semi-fictionalised memoir I Loved those Yanks has been published in the latest edition of Hecate.  You’ll need the necessary permissions/memberships to access it though. I Loved those Yanks is (to cite Meadows’ Austlit bio) ‘one of the few published accounts of life in Australia during World War II to have been written by a woman’. I’m a tad obsessed with Meadows and her memoir (for reasons that are clear in the article) which I stumbled upon in my doctoral research on the Australian home-front novel.

In Conversation with Kate Grenville

One LifeIMG_2386Last night I had the privilege and pleasure of hosting an in conversation with Australian literary giant Kate Grenville –who just also happens to be really lovely — at the Eumundi School of Arts Hall for the Sunshine Hinterland Writers’ Centre. Kate has been touring the country promoting her stunning memoir One Life: My Mother’s Story about her mother Nance Russell and her interview with me about the book was just one of many she’s done over the course of a few months. You wouldn’t know it though, as she responded to my questions with freshness, warmth and wit to a receptive audience. Of course, I didn’t think to get a photo with Kate, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

Drowning

DrowningAfter finishing Cruise Control, I was given the opportunity to direct one of the three finalist-plays chosen for the Noosa Arts Theatre One-Act Play Festival. As soon as I read Drowning, I knew it was the play I wanted to direct. Written by Ian Robinson, and billed as a ‘farce to make you cry’, Drowning is a two-hander between a Sri Lankan refugee and an immigration officer. The play begins after the refugee has arrived on Christmas Island by boat when he is thrust into the office of the immigration officer to be interviewed. It is essentially a tragicomedy and the black humour arises naturally out of situation: namely desperation meets nonsensical bureaucracy that is the result of throughly de-humanising government policies. At the end of the first scene the refugee pleads on his hands and knees not to be sent to a detention centre on Manus Island. He leaves the interview broken, but defiant. The second scene takes place one year later. The immigration officer has been given a promotion and now works on Manus Island. The refugee, whose mental health has severely deteriorated, evades security and sneaks into the immigration official’s office. The refugee insists there has been a security breach at the detention centre and, in what he sees as an act of protection, holds the immigration official hostage. The play concludes as security arrives and the refugee breaks down weeping. Actor Mohammed Shamin gave a heart-wrenching performance as the refugee that was truly affecting and, much-deservedly, received the adjudicator’s award. Sean Bennett also gave a masterful performance as the officious immigration officer. Unsurprisingly, (to me at least) — for it is truly a brilliant play — Ian Robinson won the $5000 prize for Best Play.

 

Cruise Control – It’s a wrap

Cruise Control CastAnd that’s a wrap. Cruise Control pulled up anchor last night after 14 sold out performances at the Noosa Arts Theatre. It’s with much sadness that I say goodbye to my fellow cruisers on the Queen Mary II. I loved every moment working with all the crew and cast members Andrew Moon (as my stage husband, Richard Manton), Frank Wilkie, Linda Gefken, Stephen Lawrence, Kay Ellsum, Will Harbers, and of course, the director with the mostest – Sam Coward. Here we all are on opening night with the brilliant David Williamson (playwright) and his lovely wife Kristin.

 

QTC’s Brisbane – A review

screen-shot-2016-10-22-at-12-14-49-pmIt wasn’t a full house, far from it, but QTC’s latest main stage production Brisbane—a commissioned work by local playwright Matthew Ryan—still opened to a warm reception on Saturday night. The play is set as the title suggests in Brisbane. It’s 1942: the year thousands of American troops arrived as part of the war effort in the Pacific, turning Queensland’s capital into virtual garrison town. Now remembered as Brisbane’s ‘over-paid, over-sexed and over here’ moment, it was a defining period in the city’s history. General MacArthur set up his headquarters at the AMP building on the corner of Edward and Queen Street and there’s now a museum dedicated to him on the top floor. Lennons—then situated opposite the old Court House on George Street—had only just been re-built and kitted out with the latest mod-cons the year before, and was the who’s who hub of brass and broads. Other era-defining venues were City Hall and the Trocadero (on the ‘other side’ of the river) where swing bands played, and jitterbugs jittered. The Carver Club, a recreational facility for African-American soldiers established in 1943, stood where QPAC is now.

It’s against this background that Ryan has set his coming-of-age story about 14-year-old Danny Fisher, played with appropriate, if sometimes grating, youthful earnest by the diminutive Dash Kruck. Danny’s brother, Frank (Conrad Colby), a Kitty Hawk pilot, is shot down by the Japanese during the bombing of Darwin in February of 1942.

I’ll start with the The Set: Basically, it’s a mega-sized verandah meant to characterise what’s known in real estate terms as an ‘Old Queenslander’, and the staging makes as much use of the space ‘below’ as the space ‘above’. The underneath is packed with ‘vintage’ props—some real and others not—of the kinds of things people store below their verandahs: tools, old car engines, bicycles, boxes, broken household furniture, etc. There’s even an old dressmaker’s dummy. It then converts seamlessly into a mechanic’s workshop for Danny’s scenes with Andy West: ‘the Yank’ (also played with convincing ‘Yankiness’ by Conrad Colby in a blurring of big brother hero worship transposed onto Andy the Yank). At other times it’s just ‘there’, in the background while Danny’s in the schoolyard playing cricket and fending off bullies. The upstairs represents the mostly ‘adult’ world, where interactions with Danny’s parents and Rose (Frank’s fiancé — played by the period picture-perfect and endearing Lucy Goleby) take place, and where bad news is delivered. It’s intended to be sparse and daunting. Then there’s the pulley for the ‘wire work’ (as QTC Artistic Director Wesley Enoch describes it in the play briefing), meant to simulate flying and, in one scene, ‘swing dancing’. All of this takes place in the above section.

Theatrically, it’s all very well thought out and is an ‘innovative’ use of space, for the audience however—at least those in first few rows—it’s neck-crickingly awful. To watch the action happening ‘above’ requires those in the front row (where we were) to crane their necks back at 45-degree angle to see what the actors are doing. For the second act, my partner and I moved to a couple of (the many) empty seats in the middle section; it made for a much more pleasant viewing experience. In the interests of audience comfort, the first couple of rows really should have been cordoned off. Although, set designer (Stephen Curtis) and lighting designer (David Walters) were attempting to imbue the production with an ‘epic’ feel, I don’t think the Optus Playhouse was the best choice of theatre for this play. The Cremorne would have been better: a smaller theatre space that still would have allowed for the levelled concept of the verandah and the interplay of ‘above’ and ‘below’, but would have also better affected the feel of a small suburban Queenslander, and not seen front-row patrons making appointments with their chiropractors the next day. The Cremorne is also an easier space to fill and judging by the size of the opening night crowd—perhaps of an indication of anticipated audience numbers—this also wouldn’t have been a bad thing.

‘In the Mood’ isn’t trotted out, but the mood of the period, its music, and its well-worn tropes, are depicted and distilled through stylised movement sequences and other heightened theatrical devices, including an exaggerated—aided by a pulley attached to Veronic Neave—slow-motion jitterbug sequence. There’re even a couple of cameo appearances by MacArthur, amusingly caricatured with his oversized pipe, by Matthew Backer. The impact of the Yank invasion is likewise presented via a sort of theatrical montage of random facts presented with an overtly negative bias. The ‘goodtime gal’ and her predatory ways with GIs, the brawls between Yanks and disgruntled diggers are all given the same dream-like treatment, meant to represent Danny’s imagination. But these conflicts are background trinkets used to generate colour and atmosphere. There are even kitschy passages from the 1942 Pocket Guidebook for American Serviceman in the mix (a device I’m also guilty of using in my own work on the subject). These theatrical devices, however, contribute little to the central dramatic conflict, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but for me it made those elements of the play tokenistic and one-note by literally trotting out tried and true national stereotypes about the era that people want to see reinforced.

The always-dependable Hayden Spencer and Veronica Neave play Danny’s parents. As actors, these two rarely put a foot a wrong, even if Spencer substitutes theatricality for genuine emotion at times. Though obviously a directorial decision, moments of heightened emotion, such as the news of Frank’s death, are delivered as stylised movement sequences. This device played well to Spencer’s unique abilities as a ‘physical’ actor, but it also seem a tad contrived for the sake of ‘epic-ness’. It felt as though the director, Ian Sinclair, was attempting to make the substance of these moments bigger and grander than they are—‘epic’—when in fact their impact lies in how uniquely tragic and personal they are. One family’s tragedy was transfigured to represent all families who lost a son to the war. Danny’s parents, in this regard, are sketched more as caricatures, stand-ins, than fully fleshed out characters in their own right, which is an observation of the writing, rather than acting. The supporting cast, Hugh Parker in particular (as General Monash and a schoolyard bully), all brought colour, pathos, and nicely played comedic moments to the play.

But the story is Danny’s: his ambition to be a writer (one day), his battle with schoolyard bullies, his unrequited crush on his dead brother’s fiancé Rose, his friendship with Patty (a limp-legged, 14-year-old girl, and the play’s primary comic relief played by Harriet Dyer*) and, of course, his desire to fly a Kitty Hawk, just like Frank. And while these events are presented with humour and charm they’re only just sufficiently engaging for an adult audience, or at least, this adult. Privileging the viewpoint of an adolescent boy is certainly nothing new—particularly in World War II home-front fiction, for example, there is David Malouf’s Johnno and Randolph Stowe’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea—but it does curtail the potential for more complex, layered and thematically richer dramatic conflict. I came away wondering whom this play was meant for: QTC subscribers? Surely, they’d want something more sophisticated? For many of them, this was their parents’ generation. Casual theatregoers? People who go to see the ‘safe shows’—Shakespeare, Chekov, Coward and Williams?. The ‘edgy’ youth audience doing theatre majors at university? Or school audiences? The last of these seems most likely. You’ve got a protagonist they can relate to as per the brief of the classic bildungsroman and a bonus history lesson. I have no idea if many school audiences are lined up to the see the production, but without them this production feels like its destined to bomb, excuse the pun. Not because it’s not well written, directed, designed and capably acted—it is all of those things—but despite its best intentions to be ‘epic’ it simply does not transcend its naïve, 14-year-old viewpoint, and the end result is underwhelming because of that.

Ryan takes some liberties with historical details, although whether intentional or not, I couldn’t say. Cloudland, for example, was commandeered by the US Armed Forces for troop accommodation and was not in use as a dancehall during the war, as one stylised dance sequence would have us believe. As a stickler for historical authenticity, this detail annoyed me until Ryan’s thematic intentions became more apparent—planes, flying, sky, clouds—and I figured some artistic licence could, perhaps, be granted. Another inaccuracy was the mention of a tickertape parade when the Americans arrived in 1942 to ‘save us from the Japs’. There was a tickertape parade for the Americans, but it happened in March 1941, before Pearl Harbour and before the Americans entered the war. I’m fairly sure no one else knew, and probably couldn’t care less about such seemingly minor details, but they annoyed me, because art—books, theatre, film, paintings—are the way most of us access history and once an historical inaccuracy is represented in art it doesn’t take long for it to become fact. Just ask Richard the III. I believe novelists and playwrights have a responsibility to get history as right as they can (Shakespeare, I will to concede, can probably be excused).

In fairness to Ryan though, there is much to like about his writing and vision—his dialogue and his characterisation, where it really counts, is done well—but in terms of recreating this particular era of Brisbane’s history, it could be argued that he, and Sinclair, were trying to do too much, and that’s why there’s some fallback to stereotypes and generalisation. If they hadn’t overreached with the supposed ‘epic-ness’ of this play, it would have been a better production.

* My impression of Dyer’s performance was slightly coloured by her diva turn when my partner photographed the cast for The Australian. Let’s just say he got a bit of ’tude from her.