A Streetcar Named Desire

Director Nancy Meckler, choreography Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, score Peter Salem
Scottish Ballet
Sadler’s Wells

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Marge Hendrick as Blanche Credit: Zoe Martin
Scottish Ballet in A Streetcar Named Desire Credit: Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet in A Streetcar Named Desire Credit: Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet in A Streetcar Named Desire Credit: Andy Ross
Marge Hendrick as Blanche and ensemble Credit: Andy Ross
Bethany Kingsley-Garner as Stella and Marge Hendrick as Blanche Credit: Andy Ross
Marge Hendrick as Blanche Credit: Andy Ross
Marge Hendrick as Blanche Credit: Andy Ross
Marge Hendrick as Blanche Credit: Andy Ross

I last saw Scottish Ballet’s Streetcar Named Desire in 2012, the year (so he tells us in the programme) Christopher Hampson took over as CEO/AD, and I was as thrilled by it as he was. Sadler’s Wells saw it again in 2015, but it’s been a long wait for this revival with fresh casts. It is worth the wait.

It was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s first full-length narrative ballet. She later went on to create the powerful, compact Frida Kahlo story in Broken Wings for the English National Ballet in 2016, again with the vastly experienced dramaturg Nancy Meckler. I am reminded of it by the black-clad Mexican flower sellers appearing at crucial times in Streetcar with their red roses for the Day of the Dead. Metaphors and ominous premonition...

Written and staged in 1947, the memorable Elia Kazan's steamy film version with Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter and Karl Malden came out in 1951. It is nigh impossible to delete their performances from one’s memory. Scottish Ballet makes a good fist of it with their propulsive drama to Peter Salem’s jazzy cinematic score: steamy New Orleans cabaret club jazz interlayered with waltzes, tangos, lindy jive, and Ella Fitzgerald’s classic “It’s only a Paper Moon” haunting the tragic tale, as Blanche’s dead husband haunts her.

In his early version, Tennessee Williams named his play Moth, and this is the image that pervades, Blanche drawn to a naked light bulb, drawn to young lovers who remind her of her dead husband. The ballet opens and closes with Blanche reaching up… and getting too close to the flame. Her nemesis is Stanley Kowalski, her sister Stella’s rough trade husband.

Ochoa and Meckler cleverly set the scene with Blanche’s backstory at the bankrupt DuBois Belle Rêve (beautiful dream) plantation: her marriage (wedding waltz), her husband Alan drawn to Jeff, his suicide when this illicit love is found out and her turn to alcohol to dull the pain. A fall from upper class comfort to the dens of New Orleans...

She seeks out her sister, Stella, who has now taken up with New Orleans factory worker Stanley Kowalski, who is a possessive brute, and the last person he wants is this hoity-toity alcoholic invading his space. It unravels and she unravels, her past catching up with her when she has a chance at a match with Mitch, Stanley’s poker-playing friend.

The two-hour-long (including interval) dance drama, classical mixed with musical theatre, packs a lot into that time. There is a detailed synopsis in the programme. But do we need it (still, better to cover all bases): so many stage versions have been done over the years. There’s even an opera by André Previn. I have always thought of Williams as operatic.

It is operatic in dance form—there is some vocalisation—Stanley shouts for Stella—but the dance speaks for itself. Blanche, statuesque Marge Hendrick, is the only one on pointe, reliving her painful memories, standing out from the lower orders in elegant dress and manner. In her peach negligee curled up on her bed, for a moment I see Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June.

Evan Loudon is a muscly Stanley. Though not as unhinged as Brando, he gives a beautiful performance. Claire Souet is a Stella addicted to her man, even when Blanche tells her he raped her (a scene that goes on too long—we get it). I love Thomas Edwards as Mitch, perfect casting. A lot is made of Mitch taking her out to nightclubs, boating and so on, moments of hope before he is told she is soiled goods.

Javier Andreu stands out as the bloodied Alan, a lovely dancer with expressive hands, partnered elegantly by Aaron Venegas as his lover Jeff. The ensemble plays multiple roles: wedding guests, sceneshifters, Mexican flower sellers and multiple clones of Stella and Stanley. Tall Harvey Littlefield catches my eye with his line and poise as a wedding guest.

But it’s Salem (and the Scottish Ballet Orchestra under Robert Baxter’s baton) who provides the production’s structure with his jagged musical narrative, brass, percussion, piano, strings, jukebox (and do I hear a sample of music from the film Brief Encounter or am I imagining it?), on which the dancers soar in moody solos, tender and sexy duets and vibrant, drilled ensemble. Scottish Ballet comes as close as possible to replacing Williams’s verbal poetry. His plays always move me: his language so musical. I think Salem gets it.

Nicola Turner’s set and costume design, together with Tim Mitchell’s lighting, the bare light bulbs in the sky, is clever, neat—massed crates that become the crumbling plantation, the train, the quay, seats and the rubble of New Orleans' poor neighbourhood. It needs to be seen. It must be as shocking now to the youngsters in the audience as it was in 1947. Tragic love, death, betrayal, a search for love in the bottle and ultimately incarceration in a mental asylum—can only be Williams.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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