07/11/2009 at 11:44 am Leave a comment

the whole STREETCAR thing

Everyone, Everywhere

I didn’t actually get to see this hugely popular show, even after offering sexual favours to certain ushers at the Sydney Theatre, to no avail. So I’m in no position to make any assessment over the accuracy of critical responses to the show, varied as they are – but it strikes me as interesting how such a production brings out the basic tenets of what stands for criticism in the wider community, and how we view theatre as a whole.

The shows are invariably sold out before the first preview, as was the case in Sydney, Washington and surely will be in New York. What then, is the purpose of determining success; creative or otherwise? A range of critics here and in the US have praised or vilified the production on its merits or faults, but I doubt anyone would cash in their tickets based solely on that. They certainly can’t rush out and buy one. It highlights the critics’ responsibility to engage with the work so the audience might better appreciate what they’re privileged to see, rather than just rank it aesthetically.

First off the rank the Sydney Arts Journo wrote and filed his take directly from the foyer. This is an unusual practice in Australia; while it was suggested by some that the quick turnaround left an unfulfilled analysis- however I think that it’s important to incorporate the guttural reaction that theatre can provoke in a response. Thought and analysis can sometimes kill how something is meant to feel.

Assuming this was commissioned as urgent by the Sun-Herald, it also highlights our desperate thirst to know – after all the hype: “Was it any good?” Pickard says yay, others disagree, for various reasons (too slow, too stark, too affected… wait – too affected? it’s f***ing Tennessee Williams!). James Waites weighs in with a long and thoughtful deconstruction of Streetcar in popular culture, along with a blow-by-blow account of various faults or the mise-en-scene, or (Why-Ullmann-Got-It Wrong). It’s worth a read, if only to gain a sense of the history of this modern classic. The ensuing debate on Waites’ column also gives a terrific slice of the national mindset for armchair directing; coming late in the piece from Waites:

This has really been a debate about the responsibilities you take on if you go for full-blown realism. One tiny error and the illusion is busted… (and my original posting ponders)- why go there in the first place when you have much more exciting and ‘revealing’ stylistic options available.[?]

Frankly – that’s the exact question we should be asking at the top of our critiques, not as a footnote. Who does it serve to suggest that somehow the choices were wrong, or to nitpick on details of realism? Your approval is not required. If it should be done differently – go and direct your own! Really, that’s the point of live theatre. If you ask me it’s obvious why Ullmann made the choices she did to keep things clean, to allow the performances to shine through from some pretty terrific actors (who, unlike everyone else, must suffer the scrutiny of re-interpretation each night). If I had seen it I would be crafting my response around those choices to interpret them in context, not questioning their authenticity.

More than one commentariat noted how the production might fall short of US critics’ expectations – how it may be considered presumptuous touring an American classic into the homeland. This absurd attitude simply highlights our cultural self-consciousness. Of the Australian reviews, I doubt anyone managed to avoid mentioning our Cate in the role of Blanche. It’s predictable that the focus will be towards her performance in a seminal role – but the near obsession with it is a little crass. I can’t recall any review that spoke in detail about nuances in her interpretation of character, an issue which is clearly the main object of the actor-director collaboration on text. It is, after all, Blanche’s story – not that of an actress playing a difficult part. Criticising (positively or otherwise) her performance is an indulgent path, when we need to be addressing how the choices all the characters make impact on us today. What emotions do we feel as Blanche spirals into oblivion? As Stanley’s surly frustration unfolds into rage? I get none of this from the critiques, just timid proselytizing about technique. With actors of the calibre found at the STC we’re a bit beyond that aren’t we?

Anyway, opinions fly like the wind all around maybe how this play should be done. Also like the wind, most of it is over my head. The trouble here is that STC and Streetcar have created a theatre of hype, of expectation, so that it’s impossible to go in without a set of ideas about what you are going to see. Something set to be so AMAZING it is destined to fall short. Not that they can be blamed for creating theatre events to bring audiences en masse. It’s just that the process of doing so sets ambitious goals that cannot always be kicked to everyone’s satisfaction. Critics, being a solitary bunch, sometimes forget that theatre can be an act of communion – if you can just stop thinking for a second and enjoy it.

sancz out

Entry filed under: CRITIC WATCH, Inside Theatre REVIEWS, Marketing, Sydney THEATRE.

Boldly Going Where Words Cannot Happy Days

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