A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Redline at the Old Fitz, 3 June-1July 2023. Photography by Phil Erbacher: above - Sheridan Harbridge; below - Catherine Văn-Davies and Sheridan Harbridge; below again - Ben O’Toole
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and is one of the 20th century’s finest plays. And Alexander Berlage’s staging is the finest production in Sydney in decades. Written in 1947 and set in post-war, back blocks New Orleans, from the opening moments, as audients make their way around the cheap tat of the Kowalskis’ cramped apartment (cleverly manipulated, atmospheric design by Emma White), everyone knows they’re in the thick of it.
The claustrophobia of this dump (once gentrified it would be rebranded “studio”) is instantly indicated as Stella (humane, insightful and visibly maturing Catherine Văn-Davies) sits at the kitchen table watched from a distance of not more than a metre. Meanwhile, there’s the foldaway bed tucked next to the ageing refrigerator; and a sheer curtain to give some semblance of separate space to the bed across the room. Then there’s the sad little nook beside the bathroom door where Stella’s dressing table and mirror are her only autonomy.
When she is summoned by husband Stanley (electrifying, scary, sexy Ben O’Toole) to come watch him bowl with his team, her position in the marriage is further emphasised. She drops everything and hurries to join him. It’s left to upstairs neighbour and landlady Eunice (delicious fried green tomatoes authentic Angela Nica Sullen) to greet Stella’s older sister, the unexpected Blanche (Sheridan Harbridge), whose large suitcases suggest an equally unexpected long stay.
As is evident in another Williams classic, Suddenly Last Summer (at the Ensemble now), the playwright likes to entrap his audience early on with sly humour. By the time his true motive is revealed it’s too late: one is drawn in, mesmerised and helpless to resist. This is particularly so in this Streetcar because from her first moments, Harbridge’s Blanche is a nervily febrile, constantly fluttering, dreadfully appealing woman, flaws notwithstanding. And these flaws aren’t hidden – which is where the laughs are generated as she sniffs out alcohol, announces she rarely drinks, drinks more, and demonstrates overbearing snobbery and deception despite obviously straitened circumstances. It’s not long however before a sense of foreboding comes powerfully to the fore.
The oafish Stanley is already a frustrated, angry man and his highfalutin sister-in-law presses his buttons without even trying. When he discovers that Belle Reve, the sisters’ ancestral plantation mansion, has been “lost”, their minor skirmishes turn into a war of attrition. In the stultifying heat of the poky apartment, as Blanche monopolises the bathroom for her ritual long soaks, Stanley sweats and inwardly steams toward explosion.
Initially it’s Stella who bears the brunt of Stanley’s rage (plus ça change), but as he discovers truths about Blanche’s past, which do not accord with hers, her façade of class teeters and she becomes more fragile and pitiful by the day. When he stymies her future-proofing romance with his poker night buddy Mitch (a tenderly intelligent Josh Price), the final chance of a light at the end of the tunnel of her present life is extinguished.
The changing circumstances are not only a matter of script and performance, however, but also of unusually characterful lighting. It starts by spotlighting the audience (trapped moth, anyone?) And progresses through various states of paper lantern shades and dimly glowing 25w lamps, to breathtaking chiaroscuro “natural” light where only birthday cake candles illuminate the faces leaving all else in velvety darkness – very Dogme 95! Fabulous work by Phoebe Pilcher.
Sound designer and composer Zac Saric also makes startling contributions with percussive musical breaks as well as the city sounds of passing trains, traffic and rowdies. Also, in an exceptional creative team, costume designer Aleisa Jelbart hits just the right combination of near-tawdry glamour for Blanche and no-nonsense working class togs for the neighbourhood.
In the end, however, and right the way through, it’s Sheridan Harbridge whose intensity, vulnerability and acute command of her role carry the company to the heights. First recognised by Lee Lewis as a brilliant, intuitive dramatic actor (in the definitive production of Prima Facie), it’s thrilling to see Harbridge finally be given one of the canon’s most demanding classic roles – and live it. If mainstream theatre company scouts are doing their jobs, she won’t be depending on the kindness of strangers any time soon. Recommended without reservation.