A Streetcar Named Desire

Royal Exchange Theatre

Till 15th October 2016.

reviewed by Alan Dent


            The first production of Streetcar had Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski and Jessica Tandy as Blanch DuBois. Brando took the same role in the Elia Kazan film, opposite Vivien Leigh. Every actor playing Kowalski must feel the ghost of Brando at his shoulder. This production advertises Maxine Peake in the role of Blanche; but it isn’t a star vehicle. It’s ensemble acting. The genius of The Group Theatre is close at hand. Peake is terrific, but so are her fellow players. Ben Batt is a thoroughly convincing Kowalski and Sharon Duncan-Brewster a beautifully nuanced Stella.

            The play is essentially a four-hander. This is not to diminish in any way the performances of those in the minor roles, but Stanley, Stella, Blanche and Mitch are its centre. Sarah Frankcom’s direction sticks to minimal means, a wise choice; the atmosphere of New Orleans seeps so irresistibly through the dialogue there is no need for definitive, naturalistic scenery. There has been some carping in local press reviews about the Expressionistic strokes Frankcom adds, one critic accusing her of taking “too many liberties” in a “metaphysical” production. This is churlish and misunderstands. A stage direction late in the play reads:

            The greeting is echoed and re-echoed by other mysterious voices behind the walls, as if reverberated through a canyon of rock.

            Frankcom is picking up on this kind of suggestion. Her additions are low-key and intelligent. Her direction is sturdy, unfussy and elicits excellent performances.

            Williams wrote: “…I can’t expose a human weakness on the stage unless I know it through having it myself.” Blanche and Stanley, apparently so contrasting, are in a way conjoined: she flees her pain and collapsing sense of self through flimsy fantasies of impossible refinement; he hides his vulnerability behind macho postures. His weakness makes him lash out, hers makes her pull away from a reality whose merest touch is abrasive to her nerves. When Stanley first appears, the stage direction makes clear how he has established his identity:

            Since earliest manhood the centre of his life has been pleasure with women….

His …Animal joy in his being is an affront to Blanche’s neurasthenic retreat. Does Stanley represent strength and Blanche weakness? Or is he a brute and she merely over-sensitive? The world is not so Manichaean. Stanley’s weakness is quickly revealed. The revelation that the DuBois family home, Belle Reve, has been lost, triggers his greed. He has to take over the apartment for his poker night. He is unable to see that for Stella the fragile condition of her sister is mch more important than the loss of property. When Stanley investigates what’s really going on in the Laurel Blanche comes from, he is arrogant and cruel in response. He has no insight into why Blanche needs her pretensions, no sense that they are crumbling underpinnings of a self about to collapse. His weakness is precisely his animal joy in his own being because he goes no further; to his animal joy he adds little of social subtlety. Williams, apparently, experienced both Blanche’s neurosis and Stanley’s delight in his physical self.

            Blanche is in trouble, but she is no angel. Williams is a true tragedian. His characters are neither virtuous nor evil; they are coping in horrific circumstances. Blanche uses her sexuality as a means of control. She flirts with her brother-in-law and admits it to her sister. She taunts him. She is at a distance from her own sexuality. Peake captures this extraordinarily well. She has that brittle, get-this-thing-away-from-me, controlled panic of the hysteric. The play doesn’t let us know ( because it can’t) why she is divided against herself. We are presented with the disturbing reality of her alienation. We may feel sorry for her, but simultaneously how can we fail to be horrified ? Peake inhabits every atom of this contradictory, pathetic, infuriating character. It’s hard to imagine a more complete Blanche.

            The role of Stella is always difficult. She has to protect her marriage from Blanche’s intrusions but at the same time offer support for her mentally unstable sister. The most crucial lines she speaks come after the fight with Stanley, when she is satisfied and at ease in the morning and tells Blanche that what happens between a man and a woman in the dark makes things all right. These are, perhaps, the most important lines of the play. They are the point at which Blanche is faced with the fact of the desire she can’t tolerate. She has tried to overcome it through loveless intimacy on the one hand and false refinement on the other. Her own sister reveals the failure of her strategy. Sharon Duncan-Brewster hits the right balance of tenderness and truth-telling. She is potentially Blanche’s salvation. If the older sister could trust in her healthy instincts and learn from her, she might avoid the worst. The relationship between the sisters is handled extraordinarily well. Stella is caught between the Scylla of Stanley’s unceremonious ways and Charybdis of Blanche’s will to impose her neurosis on all around her. She has to be the loving sister who won’t deny her husband and loves him fiercely. Her dilemma is exquisitely evoked.

            Stanley lacks every form of subtlety, but he has a powerful attraction in his ability to go straight to his pleasures. He might be said to be Lawrentian. He is tough, strong and indulges his obsessions carelessly. He plays poker, Stella plays bridge.  Yet when he thinks she has left him he howls like a wounded animal. He is emotionally a baby. His behaviour towards Blanche is cruel, culminating in the rape he thinks she deserves. She has come, uninvited, into his home. She is a woman. She flirts. She is half undressed in front of him. What does she expect ? Yet, he loves Stella. He sees no contradiction in loving his wife and raping her sister. He uses his sexuality to exact revenge. He likes to stand on his rights, but he is a long way from moral discrimination. His poker buddies rebuke him lightly but no one can make him think. He is a disgrace to masculinity but his masculinity is what he is proud of.

            Ben Batt captures all of this. He is all muscle and no brain but to men looking for a poker game, a laugh and a few beers, he is good company. He can be tender at moments too, as when Stella begins her labour and he must set aside his posturing and get her to hospital. At the end of the play (almost the end in this production) when he comforts Stella with words of love, it is hard not to believe he will be a good husband and father. Such are the contradictions Batt must embody. He must do so playing opposite a performer of extraordinary skill and power (how she was wasted in tv sit com). There isn’t a moment when he doesn’t get Kowalski right and he leaves the correct impression that his character is at once loveable and despicable.

            The last words of this production are Blanche’s: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” So do we all. We share the world with strangers and we need their kindness not to thrive but even to survive. The last words of the text, however, belong to Steve, one of Stanley’s poker pals: “This game is seven-card stud.” That’s the game the world is playing and it destroys people like Blanche first but all of us in the end.

            The run is sold out but you can queue for a banquette early in the morning, or try for returns. To miss this is to miss world class theatre and one of the very best productions at the Royal Exchange whose standards are very high. I doubt few people seeing this will have been in New York to see Brando in 1947, but many will have seen the film. This is just as good; better, because unrepeatable.

            Maxine Peake draws audiences to the Royal Exchange like George Best drew crowds to Old Trafford. Quite rightly. She is an artist of rare gifts but her performance is so riveting because of her hard work and minute attention to detail. It’s reported that she has said she may leave aside her collaboration with Sarah Frankcom for a while for fear of it growing stale. Will Manchester audiences grow tired of Maxine Peake ? Only when they grow tired of life.

            Streetcar is an often revived play but productions as memorable as this are very few. Pity those who miss it.