By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Rob Ashford
Venue: Donmar Warehouse
Date: Thursday 20th August 2009
The weather was cooperating today to give us the full sensuround experience – hot and humid, perfect for the Deep South. The actors didn’t have to do quite so much acting to convince us of the sultry weather in the play.
The set had the usual rough back wall, with fancy ironwork for the balconies, a spiral staircase far right (looking straight on at the stage) and an iron archway supporting something I couldn’t see properly. There was a bench against the back wall, two chairs against the posts and a cupboard or two on the far side, near what might be window shutters. A flickering gas lantern hung left of centre and I could see some indoor lights of the period lurking in the ceiling. A tiled floor and an angled door to our left completed the initial set.
After the opening lines, when all the men plus Stella head off to the bowling alley, Blanche arrives, looking two weeks short of completing a month’s rehab. The Kowalsky’s dining room table also arrives, just in time for Mrs. Hubbel to show Blanche in. The next scene is preceded by the arrival of the bedroom furniture and Blanche’s large trunk, and apart from props and set dressing that was the final setup. I liked the relative sparseness of it and the use of lighting to change the mood or highlight Blanche’s memories. Some scene changes may have taken a little longer, perhaps, but it gave an overall effect of vagueness that Blanche herself would have been proud of.
The sense of location on stage may have had its top buttons undone and one sleeve hanging off its shoulder, but the sense of time and character was as precise as an officer’s uniform. Both Steve and I felt sure that the text for this production must have been edited in some way, as it seemed so different to productions we’ve seen before. Possibly influenced by the iconic film, most productions seem to concentrate almost exclusively on the love/hate relationship between Stanley and Blanche, with Stella being quite a minor figure. This production certainly demanded a lot from Rachel Weisz as Blanche, demands that she fulfilled superbly, but it also created a more believable world around her, with strong performances from Ruth Wilson as her sister Stella, Elliot Cowan as Stanley, and Barnaby Kay as Mitch, the one fragile hope Blanche has to find happiness, or at least a reliable meal ticket.
I didn’t remember the story of Blanche’s husband killing himself, but it’s etched into my memory now. There were various references to her doomed love early on, and occasionally a good looking young man would appear at some corner of the stage, dressed in a white dinner jacket, and remain there, spotlit, to demonstrate what Blanche is remembering. At one point, an older man joined him and the two of them walked off together. Then finally, after Blanche has revealed the whole story to Mitch, we see the party re-enacted with Blanche dressed up as she was that night.
These were powerful images, which kept me aware of how much she was damaged by this early experience and made me more sympathetic towards her. Unlike my feelings towards Stanley, who was not completely repulsive, but whose dark side certainly got an outing this afternoon. His constant refrain “I’ve got a friend who…” got some good laughs, making this the funniest Streetcar by a long way. Despite this, and his unequivocal rape of his sister-in-law, he came across more sympathetically than I thought he would at one point. He’s not well educated or used to fine manners, but he’s the sort of man who will work hard to bring home the money to keep his wife and family, which is no bad thing. He also needs to be the boss in his own house, and Blanche upsets the equilibrium just by being there. She’s like the professor and Yelena in Uncle Vanya, turning everyone else’s routine upside down without contributing anything themselves. Stanley can’t be kind and let Blanche have her fantasies; he has to crush her, mentally and physically, and so he does. Even so, it’s possible to see the good in him, and that he might not have turned into a monster but for Blanche’s arrival. Or perhaps he would. Who knows?
Stella herself was magnificently played by Ruth Wilson. For once, these two women really seemed to be sisters, with different temperaments, true, but also with a shared upbringing and a fondness for each other. Her expressions while listening to Blanche’s stories were worth the price of admission on their own.
Barnaby Kay as Mitch gave us a good contrast to Stanley. A single man, still living with his mother, he was attracted by Blanche’s ladylike qualities and then repelled by her unladylike ones. It’s a small part but an important one, similar to the gentleman caller in The Glass Menagerie. His clumsy attempts to have sex with Blanche are fended off, while Stanley is much more brutal only a few hours later. And Stanley’s cruelty in telling Mitch the truth about Blanche’s recent sexual activities in Laurel is emphasised by showing Mitch to be a decent chap, who’s also suffered the loss of someone he loved many years ago.
The rest of the cast supported these central characters really well, and the whole production just soared. A great afternoon out.
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me