Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Un Tramway: Warlikowski's Desire to Reignite American Theatre in Europe

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Un Tramway: Warlikowski's Desire to Reignite American Theatre in Europe

Article excerpt

What kind of magic can a French Blanche directed by a Polish director staged in a European theatre create? Warlikowski's staging of A Streetcar Named Desire, called Un Tramway, opened in Paris in spring 2010 at the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe before starting a yearlong European tour to Warsaw, Grenoble, Berlin, Luxemburg, Amsterdam, Geneva, the Hague and back to Paris in 2011.1 In Paris, the work was both a success and a failure, as it received mixed reviews but played to sold-out houses. The renown of Krzysztof Warlikowski, a Polish director produced throughout Europe, was magnified by the casting of French film and theatre star Isabelle Huppert as Blanche. The French translation by the famous LebaneseCanadian playwright, Wajdi Mouawad, was the icing on the Odéon cake that co-produced and premiered the work. Consequently, the rather negative reaction to the play from professional critics and the general audience alike came as a surprise.2

Why was the play snubbed? Warlikowski's theatrical language was not altogether unexpected given his history of rearranging original scripts and blurring linear narratives in order to confront human suffering. This formula had won him universal acclaim in his (A)pollonia, which was performed in Avignon and Paris in 2009.3 Was it because French highbrow audiences still found Williams' work too conventional or simply too American? Or, on the contrary, was Warlikowski's theatrical style too radical for such a classic play? Or did the casting of a French movie star derail this Streetcar?

Warlikowski's Postmodern staging of a playwright who has recently thrived in commercial theatres in France renewed critical interest in A Streetcar Named Desire.4 This interest centered mostly on the concerns voiced in the press about the need for a film star to insure the success of a theatrical production. But Un Tramway also raised a number of ideological questions regarding the status of Williams in Europe and the contemporary European stage. By misrepresenting his star, Williams' canonical play and the Eurocentric universal, Warlikowski plunged his audiences into the murky depths of desire. As a result, in deviating from European and American theatre conventions, he invented anew vernacular of performance.

Misrepresenting A Streetcar Named Desire: a star, a canonical play and the Eurocentric universal

Un Tramway's tepid French reception could be explained by the failure, on the part of the audience, to recognize the film star on stage.5 Huppert's star status sent the wrong message to a number of spectators who came for the wrong reasons, namely to see her in the flesh on stage. The extent of the confusion became clear when the show quickly sold out despite its unusually long run (over two months, rare for an international production in Paris). The choice of Isabelle Huppert in the role of Blanche might have been one of the reasons behind the French critics' and audiences' negative responses to the production. And yet, it was Huppert who, reportedly,6 chose Williams and Warlikowski,7 as Piotr Gruszczynski, Warlikowski's dramaturg, explained: "Le spectacle répond au désir d'une comédienne, Isabelle Huppert, qui a voulu travailler avec Krzystof intéressé depuis longtemps par l'oeuvre de Tennessee Williams, et jouer Blanche dans la pièce."8 This double misunderstanding - that of not recognizing the star nor the play - was no doubt the main reason why a number of people walked out at the intermission.

First of all, witnessing the film star's descent into the abyss of fragility, anxiety and madness unsettled mainstream audiences. The audience's initial desire in attending the play was to be close to the film star, yet that pleasure was denied them, or at least disrupted, tbecause Huppert's acting style deviated from her film roles. Juxtaposing painful madness with stand-up comedian glibness, she worked against audience expectations and intentionally invited misrecognition. This refusal to look beyond her star status was not just limited to the audience. …

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