It has been fascinating watching Rebecca Frecknall’s development as a director, from making her mark with a defining production of Summer and Smoke four years ago to the multi-Olivier award winning Cabaret still running in the West End more than twelve months on from its astonishing debut. Now, she tackles one of the greatest plays of all time, Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire back in the intimacy of the Almeida Theatre and brings a devastating new clarity to it, eschewing the distraction of a heavy set and the cliches that tend to dog interpretations of Williams, from the exaggerated Southern accents to Blanche’s affected gentility. Instead, Frecknall restores emotional credibility to her protagonist by putting the relationship between two sisters at the heart of this production and using it to examine the wreckage that love and desire can leave behind for those too fragile to endure it.
A Streetcar Named Desire arrives with considerable regularity and it tends to be a favourite among professional and amateur companies. The last major London version was, however, eight years ago when Gillian Anderson took the leading role in Benedict Andrews’s 2014 version at the Young Vic, a contemporary staging on a streetcar-shaped revolving stage that was notably re-released via National Theatre at home. And with many star version before it including Rachel Weisz at the Donmar, the twenty-first century has not been short of Williams’s greatest play. But Frecknall offers a new dimension to this latest one, a simple but compelling truth that casts every scene anew and brings a fresh perspective to well-worn notions of what this play and its characters ought to be.
It is staged with Frecknall’s trademark simplicity, a bare stage no larger than the performance space for Cabaret with seating in the round. The significance of the slightly angled platform and clear wooden boards is stark, a blank canvas onto which the creators and indeed Blanche can project her skewed fantasies, a fresh start where anything is possible. The momentary resemblance to a ropeless bare knuckle boxing ring only adds to the anticipatory atmosphere as characters and occasional props appear. Frecknall never wants to get in the way of the text and so items are moved into the playing space only as they are needed by the actors, and delivered by those not in the scene. It is deftly done, a chair appearing a few moments before it is used, a telephone as required by the script, Blanche’s pre-packed suitcase ready to take her onto the next dream, all of it removed as seamlessly as it arrived.
Frecknell never hides these intrusions into the illusion of the play, effortlessly merging this vaguely Brechtian device with the naturalism that Williams demands and they never interrupt the flow of the scene. Instead, it draws attention to the prop and rather than cluttering the stage, they hint at place and at the claustrophobia of Stella and Stanley’s two-room apartment while leaving the characters with nothing to hide behind, no elaborate set to absorb or distract from their inevitable destruction as the audience observes their emotional unraveling from every angle.
The director uses music and lighting in lieu of unnecessary set to chart the beats of this play and its turning points. And it has a painterly quality, utilising cues from the scrip such as Blanche’s preference for dimly-lit spaces to preserve her modesty and the illusion of youth. So lighting designer Lee Curran (who also lit Summer and Smoke so evocatively) creates interesting patterns within the show that map the tone and changing mood of the story, opening with a warn and rich New Orleans afternoon sun casting its optimistic pinkish rays across the housing complex and instantly generating the uncomfortable heat that pervades the atmosphere that Williams infers. It is sultry and sweaty so Curran projects light from the side to suggest a sun beginning to set as shadows encroach – a pointed psychological moment in which the escaping Blanche seeks a hopeful welcome with her past and personality edging slowly into the frame, a place where she will only run into herself once more.
Later, inside the Kowalski’s home, the brightness is muted by the Chinese shade that Blanche insists should cover the single lightbulb hanging in the air and bringing a calm semi-romance as Blanche refuses to engage with the reality of her sister’s life and Stella’s more vivid internal and physical experience. Curran then introduces drama within the lighting scheme that responds to these contrasting emotional states and power shifts. The costume colour palette of red, salmon, yellow and mustard stand stark and vibrant in moments of confrontation. And the production looks beautiful as a result with several shots, particularly in the second part, creating some incredible stage pictures.
On Blanche’s birthday, for example, Frecknall creates a pointed moment in which the sisters sit at the front of the stage with a perfect looking blue and white-iced cake while far back Stanley looms between them, the pinkish tone of his t-shirt matching his wife’s pleated skirt, a nod both to the sibling focus of this interpretation as well as the interplay of hyper-masculinity and hyper-femininity that suffuse this production through costume (by Merle Hensel) and characterisation. Further into the production, those two ideas contend again as Blanche in a stunning but flouncy yellow number with layers of skirt is starkly presented against Stanley’s blood-red silk pyjamas in a moment that seems frozen in time and lit dramatically by Curran.
Hensel’s costume design, though contemporary, is extremely evocative both in style and shade, and considerable thought has gone into the contrast between Blanche and everyone else; she also picks pleats along with gauzy material, sheer fabrics, romantic floral designs and shoulder ruffles which speak to a grander approach to dress and a degree of polish that distinguish her particularly from Stella whose more casual manner is reflected in more practical shape and fabric choices. Character and themes are incorporated into every production choice and the overall vision is an artistic one.
Frecknall’s non-musical productions are really defined by their composition and its becomes a sparingly employed theatrical device to denote the emotional beat of the play. The use of piano and metronome were essential to the slow-burn intensity of Summer and Smoke, while this Streetcar applies drums and percussion to similar effect, underscoring but never distracting from Williams’s text which remains the absolute centre of this production. Often there is no musical accompaniment beyond those proscribed by the author; the radio that Blanche uses to irritate Stanley’s poker game or the romantic band sound she hears as a faded echo of memory when remembering her last night with her husband. Where Frecknall and composer Angus Macrae insert additional music it is in places where a change is occurring in the scene, beating out a suddenly acknowledged tension in which characters are learning something new about themselves and times when their relationships are in flux from which, as the culminating drums and cymbals indicate, they will emerge with an entirely new perspective on one another.
While most productions tend to build themselves around the sparky confrontation of Stanley and Blanche, more than any version of this play in recent years, this Streetcar foregrounds the connection between the sisters, initially contrasting their approaches and responses to the New Orleans scenario as well as their shared past at a beloved childhood home. At different points in the play the two women are shown to be more realistic or pragmatic than their sibling and while it is Blanche who tends to be the dreamer, hiding behind illusions about herself, its so interesting to see Stella being drawn from the shadows of Williams’s play and given almost as much time in the spotlight in a story that fundamentally shifts the nature of her marriage and her future beyond the action we observe.
At the start we see a powerful version of Stella, comfortable in her womanhood, sexually fulfilled by a man who she desires and quite happy to have rejected the gentility of her childhood for the modest life with Stanley. Blanche, by contrast, seems the less experienced of the two, uncomfortable around the magnetism of this couple and seeking Stella’s maternal protection. But slowly that shifts as Blanche’s influence over her sister subtly increases, bringing with it a reminder of the people they once were. Later in the play, this production suggests, it is Blanche who is more realistic about the consequences of their family life, living with the death of their parents and the financial burden of sustaining a large home that Stella (and by extension Stanley) have slightly more romantic notions about. It is under Blanche’s influence that Stella starts to question her husband’s manners about which they fight and, despite the famous reunion scene in the middle of the play, months later they are drifting apart as something between them has broken and the sisters become a closer unit almost in spite of themselves.
And much of that is possible due to the more naturalistic presentation of Blanche that over time draws the sisters closer together. Here Blanche is less overtly a “Southern Belle” and more sympathetically viewed as a woman experiencing a deep and affecting trauma at a young age that has shaped her life immeasurably. She has all the same affectations, the tendency to bathe as a way to repurify herself, the want of beauty and calm in every space and a prioritisation of genteel manners, but Frecknall’s interpretation of Blanche is far more human, more subtle than previously seen making her a deeply tragic rather than a comic figure that means her trajectory is all the more affecting.
Stepping in at extremely short notice, Patsy Ferran gives the most astonishing performance as Blanche, though younger than we have ever seen her, softening the extremes of the Southern accent to create the portrait of a woman with nowhere else to turn and ultimately in the last place she ever wanted to go. There is deep resilience in Ferran’s Blanche, a strength that has helped her to endure years of shame within her hometown and the aching loneliness that sits at the heart of this character. Ferran has always dug deep into the seeming fragility of her characters to found greater reserves within and this is exactly what she finds in Blanche. And there is a deep sensuality in Ferran’s performance – not something that has been required of the actor before – one that, again, is subtle but nonetheless vital to her eventual descent into delusion. Ferran finds that place where Blanche’s romantic hopes, so often dashed by brutish men, crash disastrously against the reality of her physical existence, charting her final capitulation with meaning and a true empathy for a woman who has barely known a moment of happiness.
Anjana Vasan brings her Stella out of the shadows to give her an equal place in this drama, a woman who seems initially more in touch with the reality of life than her sister but with Vasan’s performance understanding the romantic delusion that Stella too has been living under, one that comes tumbling down as the months roll on. And Vasan is particularly good at charting the changing relationship with Stanley as her confidence grows under the influence of her sister which sees the spousal connection begin to fracture. Where once their marriage was a tight unit, it becomes far less satisfactory to this Stella as her husband’s attitudes increasingly put distance between them, and as Stella’s pregnancy advances so too does her dissatisfaction with the life she once enjoyed with a finale that marks a clear and permanent change in their marriage.
Paul Mescal’s Stanley has been much anticipated and proves just the right mix of bullish masculinity and sensitivity that make Stanley such an appealing character. Particularly interesting here is how the brutish, menacing side of Stanley evolves in Mescal’s performance which politely welcomes Blanche in the early scenes and demonstrates a real and deep tenderness for his wife following a violent outburst that reduces him to tears. But this is a turning point for Mescal’s deeply masculine Stanley who retreats into himself as the home where he was once “king” feels exclusionary, exhibiting an aggression that culminates in a betrayal of his wife and of the man he once was. Mescal’s performance perfectly complements Vasan and Ferran, with Stanley losing himself in a fantasy of who he should be. It may not destroy him as it does Blanche but it takes away the one thing that motivates Stanley, the love and respect of his wife.
This is an intense and compelling version of A Streetcar Named Desire that succeeds in presenting a more truthful but no less powerful version of this story. It is kinder to its heroine than ever before, bringing new layers to its intense and empathetic conclusion while exploring the interplay between the characters’ romantic and practical needs. Frecknall has a real feel for these mid-century writers and the compromises of living in limited circumstances while trying to maintain artistic pursuits and ragged dreams of a better future aided by the kindness of strangers. All of that comes together so beautifully here and Williams has rarely felt so powerful.