From Hedda to Streetcar to Vanya: The Many Colors of Cate Blanchett

By Harry Haun
15 Jul 2012

Tamás Ascher
To direct, the Uptons chose a renowned Chekhov scholar with no English skills whatsoever — the Hungarian theatre artist Tamás Ascher — basing that bizarre decision on his acclaimed production of Chekhov's Ivanov, which played Sydney (and the Lincoln Center Festival) in 2009. Just to be on the safe side, a translator was required at rehearsals to relay his thoughts to the nine Australians in the cast.

"Fine-tuning a play like Uncle Vanya, which is already well-known to the people playing it, is not so much a verbal exercise as it is a visceral one," Blanchett proffered. "It's always 'a little more of this'/'a little less of that' — finite adjusting and readjusting. We had no problem understanding what he wanted." And it also helped that Ascher was a man of many sounds and gestures to make his desires known.

Essentially, what we have here is the UN edition of Anton Chekhov's human comedy, a Russian classic translated into Aussie-accented English and helmed by a Hungarian. Alongside all that, Blanchett's Texas bloodline pales considerably.

Upton, who tailored the company's most recent Hedda Gabler to his wife's specifications, huddled with Ascher over revising Vanya. The director opted for a roughhouse, almost slapstick attack on the characters rather than the usual mopey simpatico. Also, the action of the play was moved forward 50 or so years, from a country estate at the turn of the 20th century to rural Russia in the 1950s.

Given her self-professed love of New York audiences and how she has been tippy-toeing around town with one movable feast after another that deserves much longer engagements, can she at 43 see herself making a late-blooming Broadway debut?

"I suppose I'll be on Broadway one of these days — it's something I really want — but I can't say when or where and even what that will be because of this regimented life I lead, trying to make a place for family and maintain a film career and still be relatively faithful to my first love, the theatre. It's a very tight tug-of-war."

Blanchett in A Streetcar Named Desire.
photo by Richard Termine

One suspects when that great day comes, Blanchett will have gotten her act together waaay out of town at the Sydney Theatre Company. "I would really have liked to have gone to Broadway with A Streetcar Named Desire. I was proud of that."

Again, the Uptons hired a director who was light years removed from Australia but dead-on right for the task: Liv Ullmann, the Ingmar Bergman actress and late-blooming director. "Liv," said the actress who went through the motions, "had never played Blanche DuBois before, but I like to think that she did with this production."

If you feel you've taken Streetcar more times than the subway, it's likely you've memorized the blocking as much as the words. Ullmann kicked down some longstanding traces and rearranged the actors on stage as she might roses in a vase. Her most powerful and poignant innovation was Blanche's exit. Instead of leaving with a measure of dignity on the arm of her hoped-for "kind stranger," she strikes out alone, wildly confused, moving offstage into a cruelly glaring spotlight that might be her growing madness.

A stunning fade-to-white! And Blanchett played it with heart-breaking aplomb. It makes you think Brantley might be right: she is among our best and bravest.