A Streetcar for the Modern Age
Richard Inverne vigorously approves of Chelsea Walker’s new production of the Tennessee Williams classic, currently running at NST City, Southampton.
In a 1975 interview with New York Times columnist Robert Berqvist*, Williams insisted that his plays contained ‘very little’ autobiographical content, although John Lahr’s excellent 2014 biography of the writer, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh contests that, stating that Williams ‘was the most autobiographical of American playwrights’. Whatever one believes, Williams surely places his own convictions into the mouth of Blanche DuBois when she exclaims, in one of the most famous speeches in all drama, ‘I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth.’
Chelsea Walker’s daring –startling- modern-dress production of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire has returned triumphantly to the new NST City theatre after a national tour, settling authoritatively into what I consider to be one of the major theatrical events of the year. One reason for this is because Walker takes Blanche’s speech and completely overturns its sentiments. A Streetcar audience is often treated to a fairly realistic recreation of a cosy, if poverty-stricken, corner of New Orleans where life for Stella, Stanley and their neighbours lazily moves from one day to another until disrupted by the arrival of Stella’s older sister, Blanche. Walker, aided by designer Georgia Lowe, spares this audience no illusions whatsoever. The set is a stripped-back, shanty-town hut with bare, unpainted flimsy light wooden walls with minimalist furniture, lights and other furnishings: a coolbox serves for a fridge and Blanche’s bed is a lilo. One wonders where Stanley’s wages go, apart from his whiskey**, beer, bowling and cards; he is, after all, a factory parts salesman and presumably has a reasonable income. Blanche’s property is no better: her trunk is a wheelie-case and her clothes, fur and jewellery could obviously be bought in a charity shop for a tenner – ‘inexpensive summer furs’ indeed and hardly ‘the treasure chest of a pirate!’ as Stanley irascibly comments. Chelsea Walker’s point throughout is, I think, that in the world inhabited by these characters there is no magic; only brutal, penurious realism.
Even the fantasies of Blanche are far from magic, controversially played-out as the savage, merciless, disintegrating nerve-endings of her tortured mind: the visit of the Young Collector, which initially starts out as fairly humorous, on the kiss breaks out into an insane dance number – at first this bothered me, thinking that it spoiled a poignant moment. On reflection, however, it hammers home Blanche’s obsession with teenage boys, here revealed at its most disturbing and repulsive. The flower-seller, played by the same very impressive physical actor, Joe Manjon, is a ghostly visit by the frightening personification of Death. The final scene -a coup de theatre if a little clumsily-executed- sees everything, walls and all, fall or taken apart. Not just in Blanche’s mind but for the audience to see, leaving everything and everyone exposed, voicing the scene’s brief interplay with something between robotic monotone and reality. The audience, like Stella, is left shocked, lost and empty, surely Williams’s intent.
Walker’s cast satisfyingly buys into the director’s concept. Maria Louis and Will Bliss are excellent – younger-than-usual landlords, persuading us (and themselves) that their married life is fun and that this slum is just a stop-gap. Perhaps that’s their magic? Dexter Flanders as Mitch seems very in touch with the realism of his life. At first very macho and “one of the boys” with his shouting and physical dominance, he later becomes very poignant in his expressions at the pending death of his mother. Here the actor conveys an obvious transference of affection –neediness- from mother to Blanche, seemingly fairly oblivious to the sexual charms and flirtations teasingly on offer. Flanders seems more concerned at impressing a mother-figure rather than a prospective lover. The sections about the character’s weight and height and over-active perspiration glands are –in the hands of Flanders and Walker- the words of a teenage boy talking to his mother, not a grown man – and the text would seem, on reflection, to support this interesting reading. Even the drunken attempt at asserting his maleness (Blanche: ‘What do you want?’ Mitch: ‘What I been missing all summer’) is here rendered mildly, as though this Mitch wouldn’t actually dare. This production forces us to think about what such a marriage might have been like.
Walker similarly delves deep into the relationship between Stella and Stanley. This is a couple still in sexual awe of each other; she virtually oblivious to the mess caused by Stanley’s boisterous behaviour with his mates, he too selfish to even consider anything but his own lifestyle -all shortcomings, including his violent streak, dissolved by sex. Both Amber James and Patrick Knowles, with extensive RSC experience behind them – Having seen both last season in Stratford, together with Will Bliss- know how to command the stage yet integrate into an ensemble. James’s Stella is enjoying life, taking it as it comes, until Blanche descends to spoil it all. Some of the petulance of the little sister and hints of a troubled nature rightly leak through, but James does not let go until the very end of this very well-observed performance; this marriage will certainly not be the same again. Knowles, in a very difficult role – Stanley is not just an uncouth hunk and in any case -as with Toby Stephens in the Peter Hall West End production of twenty years ago- this actor does not quite have the physique. As with Amber James, Knowles’s performance is similarly full of detail: as one of “the lads”, a bully, a predator, vulnerable in places, sentimental (those wedding-night pyjamas), the interplay in the exchanges throughout the play between Stanley and Blanche – and finally horrific in the graphic rape, here played with no ambiguity whatsoever.
Brooks Atkinson’s New York Times review of the original production in 1947 describes Jessica Tandy’s performance of Blanche as ‘superb’, continuing ‘This must be one of the most perfect marriages of acting and playwrighting’. I have no hesitation in describing Kelly Gough’s assumption of the same character in the similar colours; nothing less will do. A younger-than-usual Blanche, Gough’s fears of ageing come surely from the weight of her misfortune and early-signalled approaching madness, rather than the actual onslaught of years. This Blanche commands the stage with a nervy, erratic star quality which is (purposely) out-of-place in such an atmosphere, much as Jessica Lange did in the same Hall production referred to above. In the first half, Gough forces us to react badly to her insertion into the initially-seemingly happy lives of Stella and Stanley. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, she pulls us round to sympathising with her plight and finally agonising with her in the rape scene and its aftermath – it’s all in the writing and Gough, aided by her director, finds it all. This is a masterly portrayal within a uniformly-excellent production –for me, far outstripping that of Gillian Anderson in the Benedict Andrews-Young Vic production of 2016- and we must hear much more of Kelly Gough and Chelsea Walker.
Problems? Some of the dialogue in early scenes runs too quickly, presumably in a bid for pace and audience involvement. This results in lost words or phrases, which is a pity as most of the diction is fine. Some of the comedy seems forced; the American football chants and routines don’t really convince, although the “football” which is revealed as a watermelon, roughly chopped up, eaten then strewn about the stage is very funny. The extended (and unscripted) lovemaking between Stanley and Stella, whilst emphasising what holds their relationship together, imposes upon and draws attention away from the beginning of the next scene, played simultaneously on the other side of the stage.
These observations apart, this production is a major piece of theatre and NST City has a major hit on its hands.
Richard Inverne is Senior Lecturer in Acting and Performance at Southampton Solent University and for over four years was Course Leader of Comedy Writing and Performance. He specialises in history, theory and analysis of the Performing Arts. Richard ran his own theatre company and headed a children’s theatre for many years, as well as owning and running a video production firm, specialising in commercial, promotional, training and educational projects. For several years was music and theatre critic for Plays and Players magazine. Occasionally guest-lectures at University of Southampton on stage and screen subjects. He was invited to contribute an article for The Historian magazine on Shakespeare’s Henry V on screen, specifically for the Agincourt celebratory issue. Richard is currently investigating the dynamic between Shakespeare in live performance versus its ‘Live in HD’ counterpart.