Featuring Maxine Peake, now Associate Artist at the Royal Exchange Theatre, in the leading part, this adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ tragic tale of a Southern Belle’s desperate descent into madness marks the beginning of the Exchange’s 40th anniversary season.
Directed by Sarah Frankcom—with whom Peake has worked alongside before on the two widely-acclaimed productions of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet—expectations ran high for this landmark show.
Streetcar follows fading Mississippi beauty Blanche DuBois (Peake), who turns up at her caring sister Stella’s (brilliantly performed by Sharon Duncan-Brewster) flat in New Orleans, where her collision with Stella’s earthy and brutish husband Stanley, and reality, cause her precariously-maintained stability gradually to fall to pieces.
Ben Batt’s Stanley stole this show, displaying the cynicism and power of the unrefined husband without becoming a simply one-dimensional character. As Blanche’s antithesis he retained the sense that he alone understood what she really was under her façade of prudishness and overt modesty. Youssef Kerkour as well, playing Harold Mitchell, played his part with sensitivity and great skill.
However Streetcar was not an overall success. Many productions these days have made a concerted effort to strip back their performance to its bare bones, presumably in order to draw full attention to the core material and raise important questions of their own. This version yet again resorts to this, with a barren set featuring only two mattresses, a small table, a bathtub and a glass screen, as well as an outward rejection of a period to be set in—music from the 70s mixed in with Williams’ 40s dialect, and clothing more modern than either.
For many plays the reductionist ideal works; for Streetcar, not so much. The long, long first half (an hour and 40 minutes) feels more drawn out because of its barrenness, and the references and questions this adaptation means to ask feels void of nuance.
This is seriously not helped by what I felt were weak points in Peake’s performance. Her Mississippi accent did not land with me, jarring me out of immersion in the plot many times throughout the play. In the difficult surroundings of the Exchange, with the audience watching from all angles, her voice strained to fill every line with relevant emotion.
Clearly, the exceptional actress that she is, her acting was great, and her grasp of the character meant she even managed to bring some dark comedy to the part. Interestingly, Frankcom managed to insert some dark humour into various parts of the play, drawing wry laughs from the audience even at some of its bleakest moments.
It was also difficult to work out at what point Blanche’s lies to others became delusions that she herself believed. This blurring of the lines is an important element of Streetcar but even drawing right towards the end I was given the impression that she was still posturing and deceiving, rather than actually at the point of insanity.
The second half, which moves at a much faster pace than the first as everything begins to unravel and go wrong, was far superior to the first. Cracks begin to show between the characters and the show thunders to its raging and terrible climax—though this moment was rather oddly followed by supporting characters entering to meticulously tidy and vacuum the stage. I left the Exchange feeling neither moved nor excited.
As always, the sound and lighting at the Exchange was designed and executed perfectly, bringing the crazed mood to a peak when necessary with coloured strip and spot lights, and immersive music.
“Are you lost?” Blanche is meaningfully asked at the beginning of the play. I felt that, despite some glowing performances and classic material, Streetcar remained quite lost in both its intentions and execution.
A Streetcar Named Desire runs until the 15th of October. Book tickets here.
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