A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams
Lyric Hammersmith
Northern Stage

Secret Theatre Show 2 featuring Sergo Vares as Stanley Credit: Alexandra Davenport
Secret Theatre Show 2 with Adelle Leonce as Stella Credit: Alexandra Davenport

People try anything in theatre and so they should. Nothing’s sacred in art and creativity’s a bit like the shark—once it stops moving, it dies.

So why not take a post-war naturalistic classic of the stage and shake it up with a bit of iconoclasm? After all, people have set Shakespeare in outer space, in a broom cupboard and for all I know underwater and the chap’s still in rude health.

Enter the Lyric Hammersmith’s opening show in its Secret Theatre Season at Northern Stage—a group of productions brought out of London for the first time. Streetcar was premièred on stage in the USA in 1947 with the Elia Kazan’s film version in 1951 helping rocket to fame the young and mumbling Marlon Brando as the smouldering volcano that is Stanley Kowalski. Vivienne Leigh played Blanche DuBois, a character with whom feminists have often had difficulty.

DuBois is one of the major tragic figures of the modern stage, a fragile nuclear explosion of a woman whose self-destruct tendencies drag this play through its painful journey as she and Stanley—who is married to Blanche’s sister Stella—meet head-on in a confrontation red in tooth and claw.

Steamy realism perhaps best describes Williams’s work; his plays are set in the sultry south (New Orleans here), the stifling heat and claustrophobia being both a physical and metaphorical reality for the characters, none of whom seems at ease in his or her own world.

Take away that sense of hot claustrophobia at your peril. In Sean Holmes's production, Hyemi Shin’s design in the spacious Northern Stage Hall One is a mainly open set, the action played out against three giant white structures which suggest both coolness and a sense almost of agrophobia. When one character switches on a giant fan to lower the temperature, it looks slightly ludicrous.

The script for a play whose words usually wrap themselves round the deceptively lazy curling dialect of the deep south is spoken here in English of varying accents and usually at high tempo. At times the text seems straining for its natural habitat.

A lot of drinking goes on in this play but here it’s done from plastic bottles which obviously contain only water. There’s something offputting about the cracking sound of a plastic water bottle grabbed at by a desperate dypso.

The plot revolves around the destruction caused when Blanche, clearly in some sort of slow breakdown, arrives at the Kowalski’s impoverished home. Blanche is a fading southern belle, precariously fortified by self-delusions about her own life. Once faced with the obvious fierce sexuality of her sister and Stanley’s relationship, plus the announcement of Stella’s pregnancy, she tips over in agonising slow motion, given a non-too-gentle push by the merciless Stanley.

The play’s ending, though it could sail close to melodrama, steamrollers its audience flat; it’s theatre of powerful and painful intensity and by this time the production is taking the audience with it. But it’s been a hard fight. Despite some innovatory touches the intensity, in the first half especially, tends to leak away and we have too little real sense of place as the play struggles to fit into its new suit.

The young ensemble cast works hard, though. Nadia Albina (Blanche), Sergo Vares (Stanley) and Adelle Leonce (Stella) may be a few years too young to shake off the play’s normal mantle. Or, under the maxim, ‘not broke, don’t fix’, maybe it’s a mantle better left in situ. Time will tell that better than any critic could.

Reviewer: Peter Mortimer