A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – this gets right to the broken heart of it

Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan, photograph by Marc Brenner

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE

by Tennessee Williams

directed by Rebecca Frecknall

Almeida Theatre – until 4 February 2023, then Phoenix Theatre London 20 March to 29 April 2023

https://almeida.co.uk/whats-on/a-streetcar-named-desire/10-dec-2022-4-feb-2023

Comparisons may be odious but it’s pretty much inevitable that this new Streetcar will be compared to the Almeida’s triumphant 2018 reimagining of Summer And Smoke (same author, director, leading lady and some of the same design team) as well as to earlier iterations of this tricky but magnificent text (this is the fifth London revival in the last twenty five years, following productions variously starring Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Rachel Weisz and Gillian Anderson as the tragic diva heroine Blanche Dubois). However, this is an unusually youthful reading of a play usually marinated in the disappointments of middle age, which duly casts it in a bold, bracing new light.

Even if the same team hadn’t already tackled (brilliantly) Summer And Smoke at this address, the parallels between the two plays is obvious, there being a direct line between the mental fragility and unconventional moral choices of Alma from the earlier play and Streetcar’s Blanche. Both women reflect Tennessee’s tortured, well-documented struggles with his own damaged, much wronged sister Rose. As in her earlier production, Frecknall employs music and sound to create a sort of fever-dreamscape that is as much a deconstruction of the text as a straightforward rendition of it, that gets right to the dark, broken heart of the piece. Where Summer featured a selection of beaten up pianos, Streetcar’s script is punctuated by necessarily jarring contributions from a sole drum kit and a hauntingly ethereal live vocal (Tom Penn and Gabriela García respectively, who tellingly become the two figures who take stricken Blanche away at the end of the play.)

If Frecknall’s vision is perhaps less revelatory than the knockout Gillian Anderson/Benedict Andrews Young Vic production, which was almost aggressively modern in its visual aesthetic, it has an intriguing timelessness that lingers in the imagination long after the show is over. It’s both raw and expressionistic: witness the way the boy Blanche callously shamed over his sexuality weaves in and out of the action, as though condemned to keep repeating his horrible death forever, endlessly traumatising our heroine in the process. Or how the seller of flowers for the dead contorts and abases herself on the floor, as though mirroring Blanche at her most drunkenly excessive. Even more potent is how the entire company, except for Dubois, group together at key moments, almost like a pack of watchful animals, to create a sense of community from which she is inevitably excluded. The use of water is reminiscent of Ivo van Hove but never feels as self-indulgent as it can with some of his work.

The play is staged in the round, thereby making direct engagement with these flawed, potentially dangerous people inevitable. The immediacy is profoundly effective and affecting and if Madeleine Girling’s design is spare, Lee Curran’s moody lighting works overtime, becoming almost another character in the production. In the second half, when the stakes raise to breaking point for Dubois, her disenchanted brother-in-law Stanley, sister Stella, and Blanche’s doomed liaison with the fundamentally decent Mitch (Dwane Walcott, excellent) the horizontal shards of light on all sides give the playing space the look of a combat arena, one where sheer muscle power looks set to triumph over delicate unreason.

That delicate unreason pours out of every pore of Patsy Ferran’s terrific Blanche by the end, although at first she just seems a little skittish and uncertain, if quietly manipulative. She’s neither the broken doll Rachel Weisz presented from the outset at the Donmar nor imperious like Anderson at the Young Vic. She’s thoroughly convincing, a fragile survivor whose nerves may be shot (the sudden volley of strikes to the drum kit on the upper level in her first appearance being indicative of her ongoingly unquiet mind) but whose victim status doesn’t feel inevitable, at least not initially. Crucially, she reads as much younger than any of her predecessors, so that when she refers to herself as being older than 27, it’s less of a comically grotesque lie, as it tends to play with significantly more senior actresses, and more a genuine concern.

Ferran’s late replacement of the previously announced Lydia Wilson aside, the big casting news here is screen star Paul Mescal as Kowalski. He does not disappoint. With his mullet, muscles and general air of a dirty bomb that could go off at any moment, Mescal is a dangerous, electrifying Stanley. He has a laid back laconicism that makes his sudden, and all too convincing, eruptions into savage, irrational violence all the more alarming, but he also allows us to see glimpses of a sweetness, even a tenderness, that makes Stella’s affection for him entirely plausible. This Stanley may not hint at the inner life Paul Foster fascinatingly gave him at the Young Vic but he is undeniably compelling; he moves stealthily, like an animal, which seems to be a recurring motif in this production, when taunting Blanche at the end and when he beats Stella it’s horrible but it feels as though he knows she’s better than him on every level, so this brute force is all he has.

Anjana Vasan as Stella is equally remarkable, probably the most authoritative yet sympathetic reading of the role since Essie Davis’s acclaimed performance in the 2002 Trevor Nunn production. She’s no simpering victim in sexual thrall to Stanley but rather a strong, intelligent woman who owns her choice to live here in the teaming urban squalor of Elysian Fields. The famed “what happens in the dark between a man and a woman” speech with which Stella justifies her relationship with Stanley to Blanche is less an erotic reverie or romantic whimsy but more like cold, hard facts. Her magnetic strength but sensitivity prove profoundly affecting as does the distressing suggestion at the very end that this Stella may descend in the same way as Blanche. I found it impossible to tear my eyes away from her whenever she was on stage.

The supporting cast, led by Ralph Davis and Janet Etuk as violently warring neighbours, are pretty much flawless. All in all, this is an illuminating, inventive revitalisation of a familiar piece and joins the darkly magical West End Cabaret as further testimony to Ms Frecknall’s claim to be among the most exciting directors of her generation. Good luck with getting a ticket though: best keep everything crossed for a transfer or a screening…either would be richly deserved.

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