A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams
Almeida Theatre
Almeida Theatre

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Patsy Ferran as Blanche Credit: Marc Brenner
Paul Mescal as Stanley and Anjana Vasan as Stella Credit: Marc Brenner
Paul Mescal as Stanley and Patsy Ferran as Blanche Credit: Marc Brenner
Paul Mescal as Stanley and Patsy Ferran as Blanche Credit: Marc Brenner

A strong cast and a vibrant production make this a memorable night at the theatre. Director Rebecca Frecknall stages it in-the-round on a bare platform. Cast members place props and essential furniture in reach when needed and throughout circle around the space observing and reacting to the action in or outside Stanley and Stella Kowalski’s two-room tenement in the New Orleans French Quarter, where Stella’s elder sister Blanche DuBois turns up as the play starts.

This is very different home from the grand plantation house Stella and her sister grew up in. Stella’s working-class husband is not what Blanche is used to, but for all her airs and graces she has nowhere else to go. She has lost the family home to creditors, been sacked from her teaching job and has alienated the local community. The situation is toxic and she is near breakdown.

This is a Streetcar in which in-your-face realism is fused with intense theatricality. Announced by a shattering drumbeat, the cast come on stage, a cacophony of voices that could be the busy world outside or equally what is going on in Blanche’s head. A flurry of movement turns into slow motion with a young man balancing balletically—he is part of Blanche’s guilty memories (later it becomes clear that he is her gay husband who killed himself).

Rebecca Frecknall’s staging may look simple but is highly theatrical. The drummer (Tom Penn) and a singer (Gabriela Garcia) high above the stage amplify the tension throughout the play. When, with Stella in hospital having a baby, Stanley assaults Blanche, the rape becomes stylised, with many men, a symbol for all Blanche’s sexual encounters. In desperate moments, rain pours down like retribution.

Patsy Ferran (who took over the role mid-rehearsal when injury forced Lydia Wilson to withdraw) is a fast-talking Blanche for whom words seem to keep the real world at bay. In life, she would drive you up the wall, but she is so vulnerable, the incipient terror behind her fantasies so apparent, that what could be laughable becomes tragic.

Anjana Vasan, as Stella, is a woman who has swapped dreams for reality. She seems to have grown up in awe of her elder sister’s gentility; between them, they suggest a whole history of sisterly relations, but does she really believe Blanche’s lies or just want to protect her? Unwilling or unable to compete, Stella has got away from the family plantation and found the pleasures and risks of untamed physicality that are embodied in her husband.

Paul Mescal gives his Stanley an animal energy. He may erupt without any self control, but a gentleness emerges in private despite being driven to perform an Alpha-male dominance if challenged in any way. Challenged by Blanche, he is cruel and revengeful, spilling the beans to dash her hopes of a relationship with his workmate Mitch.

“I don’t want realism, I want magic,” cries Blanche and, hiding her age from the bright light, she had begun to bewitch open-hearted Mitch (played with simple sincerity by Dwane Walcott). Both could see a potential end to their loneliness before Stanley scares him off with his home truths.

These performances presented a full-blooded reality at the centre of the production’s layered theatricality that makes it compulsive viewing. If you can find a seat in a run that is essentially sold out, don’t miss it.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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