Theatre in Wales

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A Streetcar Named Desire- Classic Fired with Fresh Life

At Theatr Clwyd

Theatr Clwyd, Nuffield Southampton Theatres & English Touring Theatre , Anthony Hopkins Theatre, Theatr Clwyd , May 18, 2018
At Theatr Clwyd by Theatr Clwyd, Nuffield Southampton Theatres & English Touring Theatre Director Chelsea Walker has done something clever. Among all Tennessee Williams' plays “A Streetcar Named Desire” from 1947 is the one that comes most freighted with pre-associations. Many of the plays were filmed. Kazan's film is not just one of greatness but is the one most widely seen. The magnificence of Richard Burton, for instance, in “Night of the Iguana” has to be sought out. Blanche, Stanley and Stella by contrast are regularly programmed on the film channels. The remedy for 2018, correctly applied here, is to do something so different that it severs all the previous visual associations.

Debbie Harry on the radio sets the transposition of era. It is stretched but works. Stanley and Mitch are a gulf apart in temperament- Dexter Flanders' performance is one of pained courteousness. Friendship is bonded in military service and, the text giving small detail, the conflicts of today are an easy substitute. The sweltering city is a younger, more racially mixed New Orleans than that of the 1940s. The cast is young in a way that the young adults in vintage films were never really youthful.

Chelsea Walker in her programme note homes in on the theme of violence against women. Lyn Gardner saw the same in her viewing, calling Stanley a “loser who insists he’s a king.” Not necessarily; he is a regular working guy in a time of stasis. If anything, the depiction of intense attraction between husband and wife here shows that marriage is a kingdom of its own. Even a family member, in the form of a sister, is a stranger outside.

Assistant director Siobhan Lynn Brennan highlights the same, using the same phrase “toxic masculinity.” She also relates a moment in the rehearsal when the company is challenged to come up with a summary of the play in one sentence. "We haven’t found a satisfying answer yet" she writes. Of course the essence of a finely wrought piece, with a two hour and forty minute length, is that it is bigger, more elaborate and more complex as to elude that kind of reduction. Difficulty, paradox, complexity are the marker points of virtue that separate art from propaganda.

No playwright is the equal of Williams in the transmutation of personal experience into drama. He is several degrees beyond O'Neill. Class difference is the unspoken in the national story of ever upward movement and material improvement. The author knew it from childhood. Cornelius, his father, was a loud, belligerent shoe salesman. Edwina, his mother, was the inhibited daughter of a minister. She would scream during sex and the three children would run into the St Louis street outside the home.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” is as much about social decline. Kelly Gough's intense and volatile Blanche clings to social superiority, unbacked by any material substance, where Amber James' Stella relinquishes it. Blanche's weapon is the one adopted by the playwright's mother. Williams' masterly biographer John Lahr described it as: “wasn't just a talker: she was a narrative event, a torrent of vivid, cadenced, florid and confounding speech that could not be denied. Eloquence was a show of power amid her powerlessness...Edwina's wall of words was designed to keep the world at bay.”

It is a description that flows directly into the play. Patrick Knowles' Stanley, in a performance of raw extroversion, is rightly riled at being the object of condescension. He rejects being called a Polack. That is for the new arrivals. He is an American. The audience knows exactly who got this blue-collar vote in November 2016.

Stanley, Mitch and friends (Will Bliss, Joe Manjon) inhabit their urban territory with a feral energy. Movement director is Shelley Maxwell. Sound designer is Giles Thomas. The peaks of Williams' drama are reinforced by the tremendous saxophone of composer Nubya Garcia.

Chelsea Walker won the 2017 RTST Sir Peter Hall Director Award and obviously has a future. Georgia Lowe's tight set takes away the potential of the Anthony Hopkins' large stage. Its meaning is revealed at the conclusion. Whether Williams needs the reinforcing metaphor of Katrina is arguable; I think not. Physically enacted sex, while clothed, rarely convinces on stage. Actors can portray sensuality and sexuality more subtly to greater impact. A sequence with a disco ball set to “Heart of Glass” shows off what theatre can do technically. It jars. A young director should follow Hands not Hove. A great director is present by not being present. Small points apart, this is a potent reinterpretation fired with an energising youthfulness.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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