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A CurtainUp London Review
A Streetcar Named Desire
Designer Christopher Oram with the assistance of Neil Austin's lighting has created the atmosphere of the 1951 film with the wonderful cast iron spiral staircase dominating the stage. Even the balcony of seats in the circle has been re-faced in metalwork to continue the illusion. The Donmar may pay minimum wage but it never cuts costs on the look of its productions. The jazzy music and the noise from the other apartments create atmosphere. At three hours long with a single interval, this is the fullest version of Tennessee Williams' best play staged for some time.
So does the British actor make a memorable Blanche? She arrives in New Orleans and is horrified at the lack of luxury that she finds her sister Stella (Ruth Wilson) living in. Overheated from the journey and clad in white frilled muslin and hat more suited to a garden party than a ride in trains and tram, her hair worn up sticks to her neck in damp tendrils and she looks the faded belle– delicate, thin and jumpy with bad nerves. She finds the alcohol and swigs back a couple of glasses. When offered a drink, she tells Stella that one is her limit but we have already counted three. As she relates to her sister the loss to debt of Belle Rive their family home in Mississippi, Blanche's account has her wallowing in self-pity like a Victorian actress in a melodrama.
Refreshed by a bath and dressed in her red silk dressing gown with her luxuriant chestnut curls cascading onto her shoulder, Blanche shows her beauty. Rachel Weisz's Blanche of the first act is spoilt, volatile and bitchy to her sweet natured sister Stella. But then enters Stanley Kowalski, her muscled and honed Polish brother in law (Elliot Cowan) and Blanche becomes flirtatious, laughing and simpering. As she puts on her dress ready to go out she asks for help with fastening the buttons and Stanley helps her but blows smoke all over her. This is Scarlett O'Hara with less luck, on her uppers and without mental resilience.
The first act impression of Blanche is not a good one. She is manipulative, lying and selfishly inconsiderate to her sister. On the staircase we see glimpses of a young man in a white tuxedo, presumably Blanche's husband when she was 16 years old, the poet who won her heart and came to an unhappy end. She is snobbish as she talks about how common she finds Stanley within his hearing, calling him sub-human and animal-like. He has invited her antipathy by asking where the money went from the family home, and rifling through her trunk asking how she afforded luxuries like a gold dress and fox furs while she is availing herself of his charity.
You will see Cowan as Kowalski – his physique as if he is competing in a wet T shirt competition and Stella explaining to her sister about how good sex feels with him– while Blanche makes the famous analogy with the title of the play: " What you are talking about is desire– just brutal Desire. The name of that rattle-trap streetcar that bangs through the Quarter, up one old narrow street and down another." What imagery! Ruth Wilson is affecting as Stella, less glamorous than her sister but altogether kinder.
In the second act, we have no illusion as to Stanley Kowalski's nature. He is not the upright holder of truth. He is a despicable wife beater and rapist. Although Blanche has provoked him, his revenge is ruination for her as he researches and exposes her lies and loose living in Laurel, Mississippi, destroying any chance of marriage to his friend Mitch (Barnaby Kay). With Stella in hospital giving birth to their baby, a drunken and angry Kowalski rapes Blanche in a deeply disturbing scene. I suspect that today's generation judges Kowalski even more harshly than the 1950s generation. Blanche in the second act is a pitiable creature, like one of the cornered cats we hear screaming on the staircase. Her feeble explanation for the lies is "I don't want realism, I want magic."
The desperation of Blanche's departure in the final scene has the whole cast onstage, many distressed by her enforced leaving as were the audience. Tennessee Williams saw his own sister taken to an asylum and this scene has all this pain relived.
Rob Ashford's production is superlative. Weisz makes the switch from a shallow, superficial woman to one sympathetic despite her flaws. I've been watching snippets of the 1951 movie and am impressed with how closely Rob Ashford's production recalls it. The "party of apes" poker table scenes are blokey, boozy and real, as oppressive as the cigarette smoke. As a director, Ashford doesn't rely on new interpretations or quirky gimmicks but his production stands on its own as the benchmark. I shall be very surprised if New York does not get to see Rachel Weisz's memorable haunting Blanche in this outstanding production.
Editor's Note: As this production settles into the Donmar, Barrington Stage in the Berkshires is getting ready to mount its own revival starring musical theater diva Marin Mazzi. Our review of that production will be posted after the August 9th opening. For links to other revivals of this and other Tennessee Williams plays Curtainup has reviewed, as well as more about Williams and his work, see our Tennessee Williams backgrounder.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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