Suddenly the bar has been raised to a very high altitude indeed.
This amazing modern dress production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ has taken Tennessee Williams’ frightening play on to a whole new, hot, steamy, level of excellence. The sexual aggression won’t be to everyone’s taste, but, by God, it’s a stunning drama, blessed with absolutely superb performances.
Director Chelsea Walker and her production team – especially designer Georgie Lowe – have quite simply torn up the rule book of audience expectations and started from scratch.
When runaway Blanche DuBois arrives in New Orleans she seems genuinely shocked at the paucity of her relatives’ accommodation. So was I. It’s half an undecorated portacabin. In stark contrast to the neighbourhood dress code of hot pants and sports vests, Blanche is wearing a smart, white evening dress. She is offered a Lilo to sleep on. From the outset she clearly isn’t going to fit in.
Kelly Gough is absolutely stunning in the central role of a self-tortured woman who is just half a bottle away from a mental breakdown. She gives Blanche an attitude of accusatory anger; jaw-jutting and finger-poking her way into people’s psyche. She’s also disgustingly flirtatious. Her brother-in-law Stanley is blatantly pushing through the surface of his own neurosis, so even if you haven’t read the play, there’s clearly a rape scene waiting to happen.
Patrick Knowles is horribly alarming in this role, as he releases the ugly beast of immaturity within Stanley. He acts like an ape at the boisterous card school, he stuffs KFC down his gullet, he punches his wife without pretext and snarls triumphantly when he discovers Blanche’s backstory. It takes ice bucket treatment to cool him down.
There is a ray of hope for Blanche. The man who might rescue her is Mitch, a giant Harlem Globetrotter who is devoted to his dying mother and needs a wife to ease her mind. Amidst all the spiralling egos, Dexter Flanders turns in a commensurately calm, polite performance; his shy, ordinariness peeling away Blanche’s pretentions. Briefly, Blanche approaches her true self; unburdening herself of her guilt about her young husband’s suicide. But the moment is lost in one line; “I don’t want realism, I want magic”. And the die of self-destruction is cast.
There are so many arresting pin pricks and explosions in this production.
The provocative bursting of a balloon at Blanche’s birthday party turns the mood in a moment. On a larger scale, nostalgic rose petals rain down to litter the stage. And there are outrageous scenarios. The play suddenly leaps from gritty realism to surreal sequences, as glitter ball lights and a Blondie soundtrack swamp the stage. Nubya Garcia’s original music is salacious; free-form sax accompaning free-form sex.
The twists and turns are so frequent, you really can’t take breath. But the most stunning of all is saved for the startling finale as the portacabin is stripped away, panel by panel, to cruelly expose Blanche in the shower room … her last sanctuary of sanity.
What would Tennessee Williams make of this? Heaven only knows. But he ought to be punching the air at the audacity of it all. It’s certainly going to be very difficult for anyone to do this play again for a very long time.
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