I’ve been an admirer of the plays of Tennessee Williams for as long as I can remember. I recall being blown away by a TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was about 16, then I took a young lady to see The Glass Menagerie when I was 17 (what a romantic gesture that was!) and the only other time I’ve seen A Streetcar Named Desire was at the Oxford Playhouse back in 1978, directed by Nicolas Kent. So it was high time I got reacquainted with the play. Mrs Chrisparkle had also never seen it, nor had our friend, Lady Lichfield, who struggled up to Leicester by train on the most circuitous of routes, but that’s another story.
I had forgotten what a simply magnificent play this is. It is so beautifully written, creating an uncertain air of mystery with almost every new plot progression, that you, as an audience member, can interpret it in many different ways. These basic plot details are for certain: Blanche Dubois has come to visit her sister Stella who lives in a dingy downstairs flat in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche seems used to a more refined lifestyle, dressing in lace and assuming an almost unnatural politesse. Stella, however, has married Stanley, an uncultured Polack (Blanche’s word), and appears content to live with (indeed emotionally and sexually satisfied by) his violent and brutish behaviour. The Grand Estate – Belle Reve – where Blanche and Stella were brought up has been “lost”, and Blanche is now homeless. Stella hasn’t forewarned Stanley that his sister-in-law is coming to stay, and it’s fair to say that they don’t hit it off. In the following months, Blanche gets courted by one of Stanley’s poker-playing buddies, Mitch, who’s less Neanderthal than the rest of them; but her past catches up with her and none of it ends happily. I could go into more detail about the plot but a) you probably know it already, b) maybe you don’t want to know it, and c) there’s a fine line between what you see on stage and what might just be figments of Blanche’s imagination. Although Blanche is taken away by a doctor and nurse at the end of the play, it’s debatable at which point her mental instability takes control. It could be at the end of the play, it could be much earlier; and what you see may be a hazy blend of reality and fantasy. That’s just part of the play’s mystery.
It was first produced in 1947 and had its first UK production in 1949, directed by Laurence Olivier and with Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Of course, back in those days, drama was censored on the British stage and the producer had to apply to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for a licence to perform. This must have provided more than a few difficulties for the censor, as the play deals with – amongst other things – insanity, victim mentality, suicide, rape, and paedophilia. But none of this was, apparently, a particular problem. The only thing that almost caused the production to be banned at the last minute was the story about Blanche’s late husband Allan, whom she found in flagrante delicto with someone else: “Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty – which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years”. For the censor, this was the bridge too far. The reference to homosexuality had to go. Bizarrely, the censor himself suggested it should be replaced so that Allan should have been caught at it with a black woman. Eventually a cut was agreed, with the line now just reading “which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…” And that is how it reads in my Penguin edition of the play and how it is currently spoken in this Curve production. Oddly, by not spelling out precisely what it was that Blanche saw her husband doing, it actually adds to the play’s overall air of mystery.
I had read some very disappointing reviews of this production after press night – none of which are remotely recognisable to the show we saw on Saturday – so I can only assume that the team have continued to work on earlier criticisms, because we all thought the show was quite brilliant. Michael Taylor’s set cleverly encompasses the several acting areas of the play – the Kowalskis’ two roomed apartment, the bathroom, the porch area, Eunice’s flat upstairs, even the streets around New Orleans. There’s a very realistic rain effect right at the end of the play that might get your knees and legs wet if you sit in the front row (as we did, but it’s great to be almost part of the action). There are lots of off-stage music effects that confront and unsettle you, the emotionally moving image of the flower vendor selling her flores para los muertos, and, of course, there are some magnificent performances.
The character of Blanche is so central and so iconic that it is vital to get it right – and Charlie Brooks gives us a terrifyingly stressed Blanche; jittery, anxious, and clearly disturbed right from the start. Mrs C and Lady L both thought that her characterisation made the first act rather frenetic – you were constantly being so bombarded by her words and her anxieties that you hardly had time to reflect. I think that’s possibly true – but I also think it’s entirely justified. In fact, I found it virtually impossible to take my eyes off Ms Brooks all the time she was on stage, so vividly and profoundly did she inhabit the character. I thought it was an amazing performance. We’d seen her a few months earlier in Beautiful Thing and she was terrific in that too – she’s not putting a foot wrong at the moment.
Her anxiety makes the perfect contrast with Dakota Blue Richards’ portrayal of Stella – calm, collected, accepting, practical, and surprisingly assertive. When Blanche tries to load the emotional blackmail on her she simply rejects it; when Stanley behaves badly to her sister she remonstrates with him. Nevertheless, she’s no match for Stanley’s brute force, and the simplicity of her return to him after he’s assaulted her speaks volumes about what she wants from life – and we the audience watch disapprovingly at her contentment with her victim status. Ms Richards gives us a Stella of great clarity and warmth; and turmoil too, when she wonders if she has done the right thing by bringing the doctor to Blanche. That was the moment when both Mrs C and Lady L reached for the Kleenex.
There’s also a wild and brilliant portrayal of Stanley by Stewart Clarke; loud, cruel, calculating, and intimidating – a really strong and intense performance, never straying into an over-the-top pantomime, but always unpleasantly believable. There are also some great supporting performances from Sandy Foster as Eunice, and Patrick Knowles as Mitch, both caught up in an environment where survival of the fittest and not rocking the boat is an imperative, even if you have to do things of which you are not proud.
A stunning production of what is still a very moving and important play – one of those theatre experiences that will live on long after you come home. It’s on at the Curve until 7th November – strongly recommended!
Production photographs by Manuel Harlan