Georgie Bolwell examines a new collaborative production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire by Theatr Clwyd for signs of a play that speaks to the here and now.
Winner of the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire depicts the rapid breakdown of a woman haunted by her past. This 2018 interpretation of the play – produced by Theatr Clwyd, Nuffield Southampton Theatres, and English Touring Theatre, and directed by Chelsea Walker – brings Williams’ work solidly into the 21stCentury and demonstrates just how little the Western attitude towards women has changed in the 60 years since Streetcar’s first performance. Kelly Gough’s appearance as troubled Southern Belle, Blanche DuBois, is powerful and raw alongside Patrick Knowles’ brutally male Stanley Kowalski. The remaining cast members are no less accomplished in their performances, but Knowles and Gough are the highlight. It is perhaps inappropriate to claim that any production of Streetcar is enjoyable, and it would certainly be wrong to describe this production as such. What it is, is an uncomfortably hard-hitting exploration of contemporary issues using a mid-19th century narrative, which is highly interesting if less nuanced than other interpretations.
Blanche DuBois, former school teacher, arrives at her sister Stella’s flat in the Elysian Fields of New Orleans by way of the eponymous streetcar. Vastly different from the small-town Mississippi that Blanche has left behind, Stella and Stanley Kowalski’s city is vibrant and energetic – a reflection of Stanley’s vigour and the passion that evokes in Stella. Blanche’s broken spirit struggles under the oppressive heat of Stanley’s presence and her half-lies and perfumed truths begin to unravel as she begins a love affair with Stanley’s friend, Mitch. Blanche’s eventual revelation of the truth of her past is harrowing, and her fragility and suffering are made all the more plain in the face of Stanley’s brutish treatment of her in the final scenes of the play.
Streetcar’s narrative was unusual at a time when domestic and sexual violence against women was largely legal, common, and even in some cases explicitly encouraged. However, despite an overall change in opinion about domestic and sexual violence, in the current context of the #MeToo movement, frequent revelations of serial sexual assault in the film and television industry, and in-depth discussions on toxic masculinity, it is perhaps unsurprising how easily William’s material slides into the 21stCentury. Walker’s use of the text highlights the atrocities of Stanley’s behaviour and encourages introspection and consideration of what is considered acceptable behaviour for men and women. The overall performance was highly discomfiting with scenes switching rapidly between emotions – nostalgia to melancholy, wrath to lust, joy to sorrow – that are handled with alacrity by the cast. Among these scenes are fever-dream sequences with slow-motion movement and slowed music, which are used to great effect the emphasise Blanche’s fragile mental state.
Although it is clear that the imitated southern American accents are used, quite unnecessarily, to further set the scene, they do begin to grate after a little while, almost to the point of distracting from the actual words. There are also aspects of the text that are handled poorly and given more levity than is appropriate. For instance, Blanche’s comment that she must be ‘good’ and ‘keep [her] hands off children’ is treated as a joke when it is in fact a deeply disturbing comment that speaks to Blanche’s history and is a warning about her unstable mental health. What’s more, the staging in the final scene has all the characters facing the audience and barely interacting with each other. The intention behind this – to isolate Blanche as the only moving figure on the stage – is obvious, though it falls somewhat short of achieving the desired effect, instead feeling clunky and unnatural. And this was not the only part of the performance that felt clunky and unnatural. There were several occasions – for example, during one of Blanche’s flashbacks where she is crying, dancing, and attempting to dress all at the same time – where either the acting or the direction is overdone and the impression of the moment was amusing when it should be unnerving.
All in all, despite these points, this production of A Streetcar Named Desire is a good one. The staging is interesting – a flimsy wooden framework that is dismantled for the last scene of the play – and allows the small apartment to both expand out onto the surrounding streets and to curl into itself, keeping characters in turmoil isolated from other action occurring onstage. Lighting and sound are used to great effect throughout, particularly where Blanche is concerned. The whole production feels simultaneously as though it is happening inside Blanche’s head and that Blanche is a mere bystander, a ghost hovering on the outskirts of her family. The explicit portrayal of sexual and domestic violence that builds throughout the play is extremely uncomfortable to watch. The final impression with which you are left is one of discomfort and sadness, but this can only mean that the play has succeed in its task – to make you think, feel, and ultimately, act.
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Georgie Bolwell is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.