A Streetcar Named Desire – August 2009

9/10

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

The Glass Menagerie – October 2008

6/10

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Braham Murray

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th October 2008

I was a bit tired after a long day which involved a trip back from Stratford amongst other things, but although that might have lessened my enjoyment of some parts of this production, I still feel it was too unbalanced to do this play full justice, the excellent cast notwithstanding.

Firstly I’ll describe the set. Designed by Simon Higlett, the rear wall of the set leaned drunkenly against the side of the stage, the windows equally skew-whiff. The rest of the set had come home early from the party, though, and so was much better behaved. We sat just off the centre aisle, so to our left was a day bed with jonquils rather absurdly flowering beside it (they looked like daffs to me, but from their use later in the play I deduced what they were meant to be). Near that was a small table which had a typewriter and books, further back was the dresser and dining room table, and the space extended back to create an exit to the (unseen) kitchen. Above this, along the back wall ran a walkway with a metal railing. At the right hand side it became a stairway down to the apartment, with the central props of the railing perpendicular to the angle of descent. To the right of the stairs was another chaise longue, and beside that was the gramophone and records. In front of these was the semi-circular three-tiered stand that held the glass figurines, and above it there were five strands of wires suspended, with copies of the glass animals attached. I suspect this was to make it clear to everyone in the audience, not just those at the front, what was in Laura’s collection, and this symbolic yet practical touch was echoed by a short cascade of boxes down part of the rear wall, towards the corner. When the lighting was bright enough, I realised these had shoes tumbling out of them, representing the boring job that Tom does to support his family, and a nice diagonal counterpoint to the dangling glassware. Later, when it lit up, I spotted the Paradise Club sign to the left of the back wall – it was just too dark over that way to spot it earlier. There were rugs and cushions and knick knacks all dotted round the place, entirely in keeping with the period, and during the interval those kind stage crew folk came and spruced the place up, ready for Laura’s “gentleman caller”. The typewriter and books were cleared away, there were bright new chintz covers for the chairs and even the cushions on the dining chairs, and the table was covered in a beautiful cloth. The ladies’ clothes changed to match. It was very detailed and created a strong sense of the period and specific location, though not necessarily the wider setting.

I hadn’t seen the play for a long time (1998, according to our records), so I’d forgotten that Tom narrates the story. It started with him lighting up the first of many cigarettes (statutory notices adorned every available door on the way in), and telling us that this was not a true story, because it was based on memory, and then giving us the social context of the period, the 1930s. The mention of economic catastrophe inevitably got a good laugh from the audience, and it was certainly a good opening; getting a laugh while connecting us to these characters’ circumstances is an excellent way to get an audience involved – well, it works for me, anyway. Sadly, things didn’t go so well after that.

For me, Brenda Blethyn as Amanda wasn’t believable enough as a woman who had been a real southern belle in her youth. This meant that her character’s grieving for past glories, and mourning over missed opportunities for happiness was transmuted into vanity and fantasy, lessening the emotional impact, and turning her into a thoroughly unpleasant harridan with no redeeming or sympathetic features whatsoever. This was coupled with Emma Hamilton’s  rather robust portrayal of Laura, which underplayed her timidity and suffering, and left me feeling that Laura was essentially fine if only her mother would shut up for a bit. Again, I found it difficult to engage with her character, and with that of her brother Tom. He was another unpleasant chap, driven to drink and extended cinema attendance (or so he claimed) by the dreadful behaviour of their mother. I don’t blame him, but then I wouldn’t want to spend time with him either. Only Jim, the gentleman caller, showed us some degree of recognisable normality, and it was in his scene with Laura that the performance began to find its feet. Jim was able to show his natural self, instead of the life-and-soul-of-the-party persona he’d been demonstrating till now, while Laura was finally able to express some of her feelings to someone not in her family and feel accepted, liked and even loved, at least for a brief moment. I liked this scene very much, though without the build up from the rest of the play it couldn’t be as moving as I’ve experienced before, but it did show us some nice subtle touches in the two performances.

I thought the main problem was the uncertainty as to how accurate Amanda and Tom are about Laura’s problems. This meant I had to consider the play intellectually, to figure out the clues I was being given, rather than being able to engage emotionally with the characters and their situations. This isn’t Pirandello, for heaven’s sake! But it certainly had some sense of playing with reality, presumably based on the opening narration. I also got a whiff of Chekov, in that instead of going into the heavier emotional aspects of the play, the production seemed determined to give us a lighter version, almost a comedy take on the play. There is humour in it, but I’m not convinced the play can take a comedy emphasis to this extent.

I was also aware of how close in time this play was to Arthur Miller’s first efforts, and could see how he might have been influenced by this, especially in relation to Death Of A Salesman. It’s still a good play, and there was enough to enjoy in this performance that I didn’t feel I’d wasted my time, but I do hope I’ll see a version that involves me more than this in the future.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Rose Tattoo – May 2007

8/10

By: Tennessee Williams

Directed by: Steven Pimlott and Nicholas Hytner

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 15th May 2007

Steve and I had seen this play many years ago, with a good cast, and a good director, but just hadn’t got it at all. Neither of us could remember much about it, apart from this sense of bewilderment. We’re both Williams fans though, so we wanted to give it another try. And we’re very glad we did.

As this was in the Olivier, the set design was basically the small house that Serafina lives in (minus a few of the rooms) on the revolve, so scene changes could be pretty brisk. The entire set was based on roses – a pattern of roses was etched onto the flooring underneath the house, and rose patterns appeared on many of the costumes (not just Serafina’s), and in much of the fabric. There was even a goat (no roses to be seen there) which was led round the front of the set a couple of times.

The fairly realistic setting certainly helped, but this production was much better than the one we’d seen before. I lost a fair bit of the dialogue at the start, as it took me a while to tune into the accents. The older generation are Italian immigrants, while the younger generation speak the southern way, except when speaking Italian. There was much more humour than I expected, although Tennessee isn’t the dourest writer by any means.

The story concerns an Italian woman, very prideful of her marriage to an Italian Baron, and even more prideful of his faithfulness, who eventually learns, years after her husband’s death during an intercepted drug delivery, that he hasn’t been faithful at all. She’s already spent those years mourning his death excessively, and this discovery threatens to tip her over the edge. Amazingly enough, this is the very day on which her daughter graduates from High School; she’s met a young man to whom she’s attracted, and this causes a bout of over-protectiveness from her mother. Serafina also meets a replacement man, another truck driver, who arranges to have a rose tattoo put on his chest to help him woo the lady. Everything seems to work out OK, though it’s a bumpy ride.

Having read the notes in the program, this was intended to be a more optimistic play than his usual, and it certainly comes across that way. Instead of a picture of domestic entanglements which are driving everyone crazy (or crazier), we get a greater sense of progression with this one, partly because of the long time gap between the husband’s death and the rest of the action, but also because the relationships are more open. The outside world is more involved through the female “chorus” of her Italian neighbours and their children, plus a few others, including the priest.

I was clear about who these people were this time, and the difficulties in the relationship between mother and daughter were both moving and entertaining. I could see how Serafina is driven by her passion, and I just enjoyed watching the events unfold. Nice one.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – November 2006

Experience: 8/10

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Richard Baron

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Wednesday 8th November 2006

I didn’t remember much of the previous production I saw, so this was a very interesting one to see. The bulk of the first act is down to Maggie, the cat of the title, all jumpy because her husband hasn’t given her a child yet, and she sees her comfortable life slipping away if Big Daddy leaves his estate to the well-offspringed brother-in-law. For a women who has clawed her way up from close to the gutter, it’s not an appealing prospect. Her husband, Brick, doesn’t have a lot to say for himself in this act, but he makes up for it later on. All the performances were good. I didn’t notice much slippage in the accent department, although I’m no expert, and the reading of the play worked well for me. I could see who the characters were loud and clear, and the production was balanced enough not to take sides – just as well, since few of the characters get anywhere near likeable. It says a great deal for Tennessee Williams’ skill as a playwright that it can be so fascinating to sit and watch so many unpleasant people for nearly three hours.

The revelations over the next two acts were unsurprising, but the presentation made them very watchable. I was especially moved by Big Daddy’s stories of his time abroad, and the abject poverty he witnessed. Brick’s despair and grief were obvious, and I liked the nice tussle between him and Maggie over the pillow. He kept putting it on the couch where he’d been sleeping since his friend died, and she kept returning it to the bed, where she wanted him to be. God knows what any child born into that family would have to put up with (now there’s and idea for a sequel). It’s a shame this wasn’t better attended, but fortunately there were lots of younger people there who may have got an insight into more powerful drama than we usually get on stage, and even on TV.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me