A complex, relevant and visually striking performance
Director Chelsea Walker has described A Streetcar Named Desire as “a play which unpicks toxic ideas of masculinity and explores the pressures society still heaps upon women.” The production deals directly with the issues of slut-shaming, domestic violence and the way society rejects women who dare speak out and act out of line. The modern setting makes these themes resonate even deeper, comparing the oppression women experienced in the late 1940’s to the issues they still face today. The pitfalls of trying too hard to be modern are avoided, with the play flawlessly transposed into the modern day, Tennessee Williams’ 70 year old dialogue still sounding fresh and fascinating to follow.
The play centres around Blanche, a teacher with a dubious past who, having lost the family estate, finds herself living in a small apartment in New Orleans with her married sister Stella and her working-class husband Stanley. Stanley and Blanche clash instantly, not only over their class differences but also in the way that through Blanche’s arrival Stanley stops being Stella’s sole concern.
The set is a simple box apartment, every inch of which is utilised. Characters wonder around on the roof, or lean on the side, emphasising the claustrophobia of the tiny flat. Emotions and flashbacks are explored in a skilful yet subtle mix of objects, sounds and lights. A single balloon, a slowed and slurred song, petals floating down onto the stage. Not only is this vital in adding another layer to the play but it is also a treat to watch. In the climax of the play the set unravels before the audience’s eyes, connected as it is to Blanche’s mental state. The transformation is so powerful in capturing Blanche as a woman who has nothing and nowhere to run anymore.
Kelly Gough’s Blanche remains a mid-20th century Southern Belle, highlighting Blanche’s alienation in the new world she must inhabit. In the second half of her performance, as Blanche’s past becomes clearer, and her mental state deteriorates, Gough delivers a powerful and emotive performance, jarring and lost, yet clear in Blanche’s despair.
Meanwhile Stanley’s brute-ness is no longer the classic image of Marlon Brando in a white vest but a nike-wearing thug portrayed by Patrick Knowles as a man who shows no weakness. The complexity of his character is found ironically in its simplicity, his unrelenting power, and his lack of change.
Stella, played by Amber James, has probably the biggest modern transformation. She has a wonderful newly found wittiness. Her character is stretched as far is it can be, portrayed not simply as Stanley’s doormat but as a vibrant and complex woman. Her sharp and sarcastic remarks build a precious bond between the sisters; she is not a someone who stands in Blanche’s shadow but someone who allows Blanche the spotlight because she realises she needs it. The audience can see clearly her attraction to Stanley, and the heat in their relationship is played out brilliantly between the actors. The passion between Stanley and Stella is real and understandable, complicating their relationship, presenting domestic violence as anything but a black and white case.
This is the productions greatest strength: it grasps so clearly the theme of desire. It’s sexy and sometimes funny, it’s cruel and painful. Fun and youthful pink scenes where characters dance to Blondie under a disco ball, ultimately turn brutal and dark, with damning consequences to the women who play with desire.
A Streetcar Named Desire returns to Southampton between 5th-16th June. Tickets available at: https://www.nstheatres.co.uk/whats-on/a-streetcar-named-desire