Tag Archives: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire – Almeida Theatre

A Streetcar Named Desire - Almeida Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

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.

A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Almeida Theatre until 4 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Saving Lockdown: National Theatre at Home and the Future of Audience Engagement

National Theatre at Home (by Richard Hubert Smith, Johan Persson, Catherine Ashmore and Tristram Kenton)

Hero and villain, roles the National Theatre finds itself cast in again and again, often at the same time; its name and funded status as a nationwide theatre means that while its tours and community-developed pieces such as A Taste of Honey and the Theatre Nation Partnerships are often feted, its London programme announcements often meet a tide of denunciation, as the failure to represent diversity or to adequately balance its schedule of classic and new work comes under fire. During lockdown, the National Theatre has been lambasted for announcing front of house staff redundancies in spite of an (as yet) unclear portion of the government fund. Given, the NT’s position and mission at the forefront of UK theatre, it is not unreasonable that such public scrutiny should be applied to its creative decision-making and financial management.

Yet, the National Theatre has also been a lockdown saviour, the first to offer archive content via a Youtube channel that allowed its productions to be viewed almost anywhere in the world. And all for free. We flocked to it, 15 million views in 173 countries, an inestimable reach that will open all kinds of debates about the democratisation of theatre. Four months on and audiences are now taking online streaming for granted, spoiled by the volume of material available across the arts from theatre to dance, opera and concert performances, to fringe, pub theatres, regional venues and major West End playhouses. Arguably, the National Theatre’s March announcement set the bar for theatre engagement during lockdown, a time when no one imagined closure would last this long.

16 weeks later, the National has shared 16 productions with its community, a collective viewing reach of millions of individuals around the world. The decision to call time on the National Theatre at Home scheme is sad but reasonable, online theatre cannot be free forever and now is a suitable time to reflect on the choice of productions, how selections changed as a longer period of lockdown became clear and what this new method of outreach could mean for future theatre engagement with its audiences.

This is not the first time that the National Theatre has been at the forefront of a period of disruptive innovation, one that doom-mongers warned could signal the end of live theatre. Established in 2009, NT Live has radically transformed the cultural landscape, ushering in a golden age of accessibility for UK audiences unable to travel to, and crucially even afford, West End prices. There are schemes enough to ensure low priced ticket allocations but the additional cost of travel, accommodation, food and sustenance can make the journey to London a prohibitive one. NT Live did away with all that, opening-up the experience of theatre to a much wider community through partnerships with and relays to the cinema screen.

It can be  divisive, many will insist that nothing can replicate the feeling of live theatre, of being in the room. And, feeling the atmosphere alter around you can be a magical experience. But, as the National Theatre at Home screenings have reminded us, the growing technical skill of the NT Live camera crew and directors have brought audiences as close as they can, providing viewing angles or close-proximity visuals unavailable to the live audience – Danny Boyle’s exciting overhead camera-work for Frankenstein (Week 5) is a case in point. Equally, anyone who has experienced the same show in both forms can attest to the expertise of the NT Live team – the screening of Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac, for example, held a power that enraptured cinema audiences in February  who were equally thrilled by it, the silver screen enhancing the experience with technical choices and shot selection that created intense, slow close-ups which understood and expanded on the underlying purpose Lloyd’s interpretation.

Programming the Season 

The first announcement came in March, with the hugely successful One Man, Two Governors opening the season; it was truly event theatre as a million people tuned in within the first 24-hours, a feeling of commonality stretching between laptops across the country as we all switched on at 7pm that Thursday night, together apart. Three more shows – Jane Eyre, Treasure Island and Twelfth Night would follow, shows that were enjoyable but not quite in the top tier of National Theatre productions. Then as a Spring and Summer of theatre closures loomed the National Theatre got serious.

Huge announcements of high profile productions followed, showcasing some of the very best work of the last decade – Frankenstein was a marvel offering both versions in the same week, the ripple of excitement that accompanied the news that The Barbershop Chronicles (Week 7), A Streetcar Named Desire (Week 8), This House (Week 9) and Coriolanus (Week 10) would provide a glorious mid-season high, and as the Black Lives Matters protests dominated debate, a more diverse final show selection from The Madness of King George III (Week 11) to Small Island (Week 12) the smouldering brilliance of The Deep Blue Sea (Week 15) and the joyous strangeness of Amadeus (Week 16) – a fitting conclusion that revealed the operatic grandeur of the Olivier Theatre and the huge resources of the National deployed in music, costume, direction and performance.

Across the 16 weeks we have seen four Shakespeare plays and seven contemporary plays, new at the time of recording. The vast majority of them came from NT Live captures while The Barbershop Chronicles was an archive recording in the Dorfman, seven were set before and four during the twentieth-century with five in modern or timeless locations. There were five comedies, two American playwrights and four book adaptations. We were transported to Ancient Egypt and Rome, a 1950s boarding house, eighteenth-century courts, 1970s Westminster, the nineteenth-century Yorkshire moors, colonial Africa, magical woodlands, a sultry apartment in New Orleans and the seaside all without leaving our bedrooms. We laughed at pseudo-1950s farce, became swept up in wars of oppression and conquest, shed tears for grand lovers, ruined musicians, tragic monarchs and caged women while rejoicing at the humanity of it all. This is the power of theatre and it was all completely free.

The Future of Theatre Engagement

So how does all of this affect what we might see in the future. Certainly in the short-term, the industry may adopt a hybrid model with performances happening live in socially distant theatre spaces as with the forthcoming Jesus Christ Superstar concert and the new Sleepless in Seattle musical, while others will continue to pursue the creation of new digital content either through live relay as the Old Vic’s In Camera series is pioneering, or as films created under lockdown conditions and streamed to Youtube.

Perhaps there is even a way for the two to come together, a socially distanced audience for those who can and feel comfortable attending a live performance with a limited run which could also be streamed online via a pay-wall – exactly how a National Theatre Live evening usually works where the cameras are arranged so as not to impede the viewer in the room but take the show to hundreds of cinema screens, or in this case laptops, across the UK.

But, the real impact of National Theatre at Home has been to change our relationship with venues and the creative forces behind each show. The first cast reunion happened in response to One Man Two Guvnors, a 30-minute chat on 7 April that has been viewed 145,000 times. The idea was replicated down the months, Twelfth Night  (Week 4) and Antony and Cleopatra (Week 6) soon followed, while both Small Island and Les Blancs (Week 14) held panel sessions on the issues raised in both plays, helping them to respond to the changing social climate in which the screenings were now taking place.

The concept really took off in Week 10, when the National Theatre opened-up its offering to include shows recorded in other venues. Director Josie Rourke and lead Tom Hiddleston provided a live Instagram commentary with contributions from other cast members throughout the 2.5 hour runtime of Coriolanus from the Donmar Warehouse. Later uploaded to Youtube, it proved a fascinating conversation with insight into the decision-making process as Rourke and Hiddleston’s wide-ranging discussion covered literary aspects of the text, the classical context of Ancient Roman society and the technical elements of building a character, stage design and physical movement that fed into the performance. A 30-minute post-show discussion also available on the National Theatre’s Youtube channel has been watched more than 86,000 times while the Bridge Theatre’s anecdote-filled A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Week 13) cast reunion has had almost 40,000 views.

Video trailers and talking heads have long been part of theatre promotional strategies but filmed post-show discussions may have more traction or could even replace the rather stale content in the traditional programme. If audiences want to understand more about a production buying a programme will only tell you so much with venues retaining a decades-old approach – a couple of academic essays on the play’s origins or themes, usually a chronological life of the author and the creative team biographies. In 2020, if a theatre-goer wants an essay on the themes of Hamlet or the defiance of Noel Coward, the Internet can provide all your needs, what it can’t tell you is why particular production decisions were made.

These cast reunion and live commentary videos tell us that thousands of people want to know more about the specific choices creatives make in bringing their version of a play to life; why did the director and designer want to set Julius Caesar in a 1970s carpet warehouse, by what process does an actor in the cast build their role using the text, knowledge of past performance, socio-political experience of the era and instinct, and what are the challenges of lighting a moody Sondheim musical in a space as large as the Olivier Theatre? A modern programme should help to translate these choices to the audience, putting the creative teams we all admire at the centre of theatre outreach, their work does not begin and end in the performance space. And it needn’t just be digital content, programme essays could come from costume or set designers explaining how a character’s style and fabric choices respond to the themes of the play or how soundscaping is used across the show to mark changes in the emotional rhythm of the story.

From The Grinning Man to the cast of Smash during lockdown Zoom discussions have almost become the norm, a chance to relive the excitment of seeing the show but also to understand more about the process of making it. These activities are the equivalent of DVD extras for theatre lovers and the future of theatre engagement has to be in reaching out across the fourth wall, something modern audiences are clearly hungry for. This closure period has given us a renewed appreciation for the writers, directors, technical specialists, performers and musicians that make theatre for us, so forget the dry academic essays because it is their skill in interpreting and reimagining stories for us that we really want to read about. The National Theatre really did save lockdown and made us appreciate our phenomenal creative industries, but they may also have inadvertently pointed the way for the future as surely as National Theatre Live did in 2009.

National Theatre at Home ran from 02 April to 23 July 2020. Cast reunion and other videos are available on National Theatre Youtube Channel. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Streetcars, Smoke and Southern Belles: Contemporary Approaches to Tennessee Williams

Summer and Smoke Streetcar and Glass Menagerie

In the week that National Theatre at Home broadcasts the Young Vic’s superb 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s timely to note how representations of Tennessee Williams’s work has changed as a result, with a broadening of approaches particularly visible in the last 18-months. As a great American dramatist, Williams’s timeless understanding of human emotion and the particularly explosive dynamics of family groups has always been such a notable feature of his writing and for which the latest crop of productions have scruitinised his work. There has been a shift from period-focused productions that situate Williams’s play squarely in their 1940s and 1950s context to more contemporary or undefinable settings, while entirely reinterpreted productions of big hitters StreetcarCat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie, which recur with some frequency, have shared the limelight with less celebrated plays as directors made an impassioned case for the value of Williams’s wider portfolio and new ways of seeing his work.

The screening of the Young Vic’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire via National Theatre at Home, available since last Thursday, is a valuable reminder of what a landmark production this was in several ways, beautifully skirting the boundaries of reality and illusion so redolent of Williams’s tone and characters. Benedict Andrews’s modern approach brought revelatory insight to this frequently performed classic, representing Blanche as a vulnerable predator whose declining mental health is so tangibly associated with a youthful tragedy and the subsequent denial of her natural instincts. There’s nothing timid about the nature of desire in Andrews interpretation, it is passionate, explosive and ultimately damaging, and since 2014, productions have increasingly taken this approach to staging the Williams canon.

Rediscovering the Emotional Power of ‘Lesser’ Works

The most significant consequence of this has been for venues to investigate the broader work that Williams has produced. A prolific playwright with over 100 full length and One Act credits, the opportunity to see and reassess some of these pieces has been a fascinating one. Rebecca Frecknall’s Summer and Smoke for the Almeida which earned a West End transfer to the Duke of York’s, has perhaps done more than any other Williams production in the last decade to broaden our perspective of the writer. Stripping the production of staging and locational debris, Frecknall’s production brought a powerful resonance to the central relationship between socially awkward Alma and lonely Doctor John that was as affecting and emotionally loaded as anything you’ll see in Streetcar or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The focus on the tentative intimacy between these two fragile personalities was spellbinding as they movingly failed to find a rhythm, always out of step with each other on personal trajectories that unravelled and reconstructed their characters, making it impossible to be together.

Frecknall understood the rhythm of Williams’s writing so well, the heartbeat of a play in which its two protagonists are so trapped withing their own nature and so confined by the public perception of their personality that they are unable to respond to deeper calls within themselves. For Alma these are the earthier, animalistic impulses of attraction, whereas for John it is the more soulful demands of his heart. The clarity and power of this was both tangible and devastating in Frecknall’s production, making a startling case for the value of this rarely seen play.

Theatre Clywd’s production of Orpheus Descending which transferred to the Menier is by no means Williams’s best writing, to a degree lacking the simmering tension of family secrets, using the arrival of a stranger to unlock the past which partially lessens the impact of its consequences. Yet, this enjoyable version had much to say on Williams’s theme of caged personalities as store owner Lady was drawn to drifter Val. Here we particularly felt Williams’s empathy both for women who subvert their impulses as Lady does through her respectable marriage to Torrance, and for those whose natural exuberance and persistence destroys them as it does with Carol Cutrere. This insight really gets to the heart of so much of Williams’s work as the external ordinariness of his female characters in particular contrasts with the raging unfulfilled desires within them. Therein lies their essential tragedy, that small-town society disapproves of and sometimes actively persecutes the sexual need and expression of the Carols and Blanches in Williams’s plays but is more accepting of male promiscuity, confines the female characters even further, creating shame and self-loathing that empathetically drives them to the physical and psychological edge of society .

Finally, the King’s Head put together two rarely seen short-plays for its Southern Belles programme in July 2019 exploring sexuality and gender in the One Act pieces Something Unspoken and And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens. This proved a meaningful double bill, one that confirms Williams’s interested in hidden, unconstrainable and ultimately destructive emotional layers within the individual. There was also a fascinating power dynamic in both duologues that questioned how these two relationships were affected by monetary transaction and social status. In both an ’employer’ figure utilises their seniority to make demands they are not longer able to constrain, wrongly (perhaps) assuming the other returned their feelings. What was so interesting about Jamie Armitage’s approach was that central uncertainty, showing how commandingly Williams could relay shifting power dynamics, building scenes to a point where the narrative and the lead characters must make an all or nothing play, leaving them vulnerable and exposed.

Staging Simplicity 

Supporting these internalised and more emotionally suggestive approaches in which the external need to be ‘respectable’ contends with a character’s natural and often wilder impulses, staging approaches have become increasingly simplified and symbolic, emphasising atmosphere and tone.  A general trend across theatre which has also released the works of Chekhov and Pinter from their period confinement, with notional rather than explicit set detail contributing to this wider reassessment of Williams’s themes.

Both Southern Belles and Orpheus Descending performed in the three-quarter round opted for representative sets, implying just enough reality to indicate setting and era to the audience while clearing the main performance space for the interior character experience to fill the room. Designer Jonathan Fensom implied the inside of Lady’s store with a wooden slatted backdrop, representative seating area and a hint of the other rooms. Similiarly, Sarah Mercadé for Southern Belles also took an indicative approach with a few carefully positioned  pieces of furniture, while draping the small King’s Head auditorium in pink fabric. Both designers provided just enough visual information to prompt the audience’s imagination, while giving the actors a platform to prioritise intimacy between the characters and their emotional excavation.

Arguably, this simplicity works best in smaller spaces and when Benedict Andrews took a similarly parred-back approach to his disappointing 2017 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in which designer Magda Willi created a monied and stylishly-minimised set, the oddly cold atmosphere failed to fill the Apollo’s cavernous space and gave the production a hollow ring. Set design has to reflect the heat within Williams’s plays, so it is interesting that Summer and Smoke had no such problems when it transferred to the Duke of York’s where its entirely representative set worked just as powerfully in the close confines of the Almeida as it did later in the West End. Very little in Tom Scutt’s design indicated the play’s location or era, instead a semi-circle of pianos, a metronome and lighting became the physical substance of a play that used music and beat to chart the emotional rhythm of the central relationship with considerable success, leading us back to Williams’s fascination with the line between reality and illusion.

James Macdonald’s Night of the Iguana may have bucked the trend for simpler sets last year but strong characterisation by Clive Owen and Lia Williams overcame the cartoony background to give a captivating depth to the conversations between the alcoholic cleric and the unassuming traveller. In spite of this, the general trend since Andrews Streetcar has been a sharper focus on using the text and Williams’s language to create tone and claustrophobic tension between the characters – the fact that budget and space limitations has meant this way of looking at Williams’s work has emerged largely from the smaller Off-West End and Fringe venues is testament to their influence within the industry where visual trends don’t just filter down from the top.

A New Context – The Future of Characterisation

Some of the most fascinating developments have been in reconceiving a play in its entirety, changing not just its era but thinking about character and context that take interpretations of Williams’s work in quite different and exciting new directions. Making a case for the absolute universality of the writer’s emotional constructs, director Femi Elufowoju jr completely reimagined The Glass Menagerie at the Arcola last autumn, retaining its period setting but making the working-class Wingfield family African-American – a decision which worked seamlessly, adding a fresh dimension to a well-worn story.  With its notes of faded dreams and missed opportunities, the production developed an added nuance without changing a word of the original text, shifting the emphasise to the limitations of the American Dream and its aspirations while adding a deeper but valuable social and political commentary – a layer that Marianne Elliott also extracted from her similar treatment of Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Who knows what further levels Ivo van Hove would have discovered (or lost) in slimming Williams’s play to two hours, and performing it in French by a Parisian company, led by the Belgian director. With Isabelle Huppert  playing the role of Amanda, this postponed production, which was due to arrive at the Barbican in early June as the second stop on a European tour, may be another theatre casualty of the pandemic, but its very existence speaks to a new interest in reinterpreting Williams and examining the application of his themes in different international contexts, even in translation.

These productions open enormous possibilities for the future of Williams’s work where the universality of the human experience and the ways in which societies attempt to define and confine the individual are applied to entirely new scenarios. The destructive impulses that Williams writes about are not unique to American society and if Inua Ellams can relocate Chekhov to Nigeria, then Williams can exist anywhere that a physical heat and secrets drive human behaviour.  Recent productions continue to push the boundaries of interpretation, increasing our understanding and appreciation of one of the twentieth-century’s most enduring playwrights. ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic’ Blanche exclaims in A Streetcar Named Desire; no matter how and where his plays are staged Williams always shows us the painful fragility of both. Let’s keep pushing.

A Streetcar Named Desire is freely available on the National Theatre at Home Youtube channel until Thursday 28 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

glass-menagerie

Absence and disappointment fill Tennessee Williams’s first big successful play The Glass Menagerie, but its appeal rests in the charm of its small family, one room set-up that continues to feel relevant and troubling today. Yet it’s been quite some time since a production has reached the West End despite a well-received version at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2015; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof come round fairly often, and we even had a rather flat production of In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, but the complexities of Williams’s 1944 play with its hyper-realised memory-format make it difficult to do well.

The 2013 American Repertory Theatre production of this play has finally made it to London, where it has already received stellar reviews to add to its Tony nominations from Broadway. And all of them are entirely deserved in a production that showcases the complexities of family relationships and pointedly reveals the inner-life of its characters. The one thing you’ll hear over and over again about this play is that it is Williams’s most autobiographical work but how much he has drawn from his own life and experiences in the several years it took to compose this play are debatable, but that is not all there is to say about this remarkable drama.

Set in the Wingfield’s small St Louis flat in an unremarkable tenant block, the narrator Tom lives with his mother and sister in genteel poverty. Tom works at the local shoe warehouse and dreams of freedom from the burden of providing for his family, a burden which takes him to ‘the movies’ every night to escape into the adventure of the silver screen. Matriarch Amanda has cared for her, now adult, children since her husband abandoned them many years before and dreams of receiving a “gentlemen caller” to marry her painfully shy and slightly disabled daughter Laura. Obsessed with her own past glories as a younger woman, Amanda nags and harries Tom until he finally agrees to bring home a friend from work, a night that changes everything.

Where Williams excels as a dramatist is his ability to show an audience what’s going on under the skin of his characters even when their surface demeanour is calm, poised and seemingly repressed. Particularly drawn to people who aspire to a type of gentility they lack or have since lost, Williams characters often burn with an interior passion for something or someone that can never be realised, or if it is will be a fleeting pleasure rather than the much needed change of life. We see this in Blanche who yearns for the respectability of marriage and stability but cannot fight her baser attractions to virile younger men, and we see it in Maggie who tries to be a dutiful daughter-in-law and wife but cannot contain her unrequited passion for her husband and his protection from the machinations of his family.

In The Glass Menagerie, and so beautifully realised in this production, the three primary characters struggle in exactly the same way, having to present one face to the world, to show acceptance and duty, while inside their fantasies of escape and freedom fight to emerge. The dramatic frame is set by Tom who speaks directly to the audience at the beginning from some future time, long after the events the play recounts. These are his memories and ones we are asked not to trust, as they are filled with illusion and his years of regret. Tom (which happens to be Williams’s real name) is then partly an unreliable narrator but also someone we come to view quite differently as events play out.

Initially he seems a steady, reliable young man, worn down by the drudgery of his work who seeks solace for his sensitive soul in writing poetry and going to the cinema. But actor Michael Esper slowly reveals the complexities under the surface, a sense of frustration with his overbearing mother and her constant interference, a rage against the world for forcing him into a life he didn’t want and, somewhat surprisingly, a secret drive to abandon them entirely. It is in the second act that an unexpected darkness emerges in Tom as he fights for his own survival, and in Esper’s performance you get clever hints that Tom is not all he seems, that ‘the movies’ may not be what we think and his interest in Jim the “gentleman caller” is something less wholesome than his family believes.

Similarly sister Laura, played by Kate O’Flynn is a delicate, broken creature, drummed into shyness and a sense of inferiority by the demands of her mother. Obsessed with caring for her collection of glass ornaments, represented here as only one small glass unicorn, Laura we learn has lived a life unfulfilled by work or love, clinging only to the constancy of her fragile collection. And while away from her mother we see her care for her brother’s welfare, it is with the arrival of Jim that O’Flynn allows Laura’s true character to burst into life, as she warms to the gentleness of his treatment, becoming talkative and momentarily happy in his presence. We see that despite her reticence she yearns for the kind of love her mother dreams of for her, something she has always convinced herself was not possible for someone like her. And the audience truly feels for her as the play reaches its conclusion.

In many ways, Amanda is the most complicated role of them all and Cherry Jones’s Tony-nominated performance is a masterclass in Williams’s pushy Southern women. Disguised as a protective instinct, to save her children from vice, Amanda is concerned that the world should see her as a decent, dignified woman. Like her children she has no current friends to speak of, but she revels in memories of her past that seem as real to her in Jones’s performance, as the present day. We never know really what happened with her husband and there are some hints that he was unsuitable, but she focuses on the many offers and admirers she once had, and the dreamlike reality of that earlier happier time. Amanda nags and berates her children, interferes in their business and talks excessively at people, so the audience understands Tom’s need to escape entirely. Yet, Jones still makes her sympathetic, affected by the absence of her husband and the disappointment of a life that promised so much and delivered so little.

Although a relatively small role Jim played by Brian J. Smith, the infamous “gentleman caller” is a sensitive young man who arrives at the Wingfield’s with no expectation of why he’s really there. Williams also gives him a similar sense of internal and external battle as he is drawn to Laura’s sadness and tries to gently nurture her confidence. Smith dominates the few scenes he’s in, as a breath of fresh air that blows through the Wingfield house bringing momentary hope and happiness to everyone inside, which serves to makes the conclusion only feel more emotive.

John Tiffany directs with a deep understanding of the layers in Williams’s play, while cleverly mixing a sense of encroaching reality with the ephemeral nature of memory. Natasha Katz’s lighting design adds to the dreamlike quality of the production and the slightly haunting nature of Tom’s few narrative moments. Bob Crowley’s layers of hexagonal set pitch the three sections slightly out of line with each other, which beautifully reflects how little the three protagonists understand each other, while the whole is cut into by a lightning bolt-shaped fire escape that pierces the Wingfield’s flat and underlines Tom’s concluding speech.

The flat is surrounded by a vast black lagoon which is occasionally lit like stars in moments of hope but seeks to demonstrate the endless emptiness that surrounds all of them, like an island forever cut-off from the outside world. While it works brilliantly as metaphor, it does lose the sense of crowding and claustrophobia that tenement-living induces and is also vital to the play’s subtext. There is little sense of being surrounded by other lives here which is a shame, and the National’s recent take on The Deep Blue Sea had a more suitable solution to the block housing problem.

Nonetheless, this is a masterfully charged production of Williams’s early play, and while the style takes a little while to get used to, it soon draws you into the inner-lives of its lonely protagonists. And while in one sense it is a tiny domestic drama that affects only the four characters we see, it has a universality that is quite affecting. Everyone has lost or never achieved something they wanted, whether it is love, recognition or freedom, and Williams’s creations represent something we can all recognise. The power of this play’s characters, and the American Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, is that all of them are fragile creatures, a glass menagerie that we watch shatter in the hands of the playwright.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 April. Tickets start at £20 but do note ATG booking fees. Day seats are available from £15 at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


A Streetcar Named Desire – Young Vic

As the summer theatre season draws to a close, A Streetcar Named Desire is just about the last of the big-name productions that has elsewhere seen film stars Bill Nighy, Carey Mulligan and Kathleen Turner pitch up on the London stage. A sell-out before it opened at the Young Vic, Gillian Anderson’s Blanche Dubois was hotly anticipated and widely praised, with critics unanimously hailing it the performance of a lifetime for her. Written in the late 40s, Tennessee Williams’s most famous play is the story of Blanche who has lost possession of the family home and comes to stay with her sister Stella in a New Orleans tenement block during a hot summer. Blanche’s refined manner and romantic ideals are at odds with Stella’s macho husband Stanley and the two engage in an intense battle of wills. As the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tiny flat sets in, the truth about Blanche and her history emerges with dangerous consequences.

The most striking thing about the Young Vic’s production is its modern setting, bold use of coloured lights and slowly revolving set which gives the entire audience, seated in the round, a chance to see Stella and Stanley’s apartment from every angle. The design, by Magda Willi, is a simple kitchen, bedroom and bathroom with a gauzy curtain which can be pulled across the centre to form semi-separate rooms. Scenes are dazzling lit in bold purples, greens and yellows – no coincidence in this world of domestic violence that these act as symbolic bruises.

The rotation in some sense adds a great deal, both reinforcing the growing instability of the central relationships and bringing things in and out of focus, while acting as marker for significant shifts in tempo. It speeds up at moments of high drama, particularly when Blanche and Stanley are alone, or the spin changes direction suddenly to increase the disorientating effect. The movement also gives a sense of the characters being on that titular Streetcar, unable to alight until it reaches its final destination – reinforcing that the battle between Blanche and Stanley is being fought to the end. It has its downsides of course; you do miss bits of the action, and sometimes the words, because bits of stairs or kitchen block your view. This did happen several times at crucial points which was frustrating and actually a little alienating.

Needless to say Gillian Anderson is spectacular as the troubled Blanche. She totters around in enormous heels and big sunglasses, playing the southern belle with a girlish ease. Yet, for all her simpering mannerisms, there’s something of the predator about her as well, dark and threatening. She all but inhales the boy who comes to the door, and parades wantonly in front of the thin curtain as she gets undressed near Stanley’s poker game. Anderson’s vocal control is very impressive moving effortlessly from giggling flirtation to sultry seductress, and then as Blanche is overwhelmed by the truth and begins to lose her grip, she shows her drunkenly clinging on to the tatters of her character and not quite sure which of her identities to assume. This is the real strength of Anderson’s performance, you can never quite tell which version is the real Blanche – lady or temptress – and as these two personalities merge and then splinter, neither does she.

Despite Vanessa Kirby’s variable accent, her Stella does a good job of conveying her obsessive love for her husband and how her loyalties are tested by her sister’s visit. You certainly get the sense that something shifts in their marriage during the course of the play and it will never be quite the same. Ben Foster’s Stanley is imposingly macho, quite capable of crushing the fragile Blanche, yet somehow unable to entirely outwit her. I didn’t quite believe in his irresistibility however and it would have been interesting to explore the class dimension in his performance – the extent to which Stanley is out of his depth with people with different backgrounds and aspirations which could add an extra layer of vulnerability to his clash with Blanche.

I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit disappointed when I left the theatre but that’s because my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high. Their earlier version of A View From the Bridge was so powerful that I was thinking about it for hours afterwards. I thought I’d feel the same about Streetcar, and while this is an all-but-perfect production the occasional alienation from the action meant it didn’t quite blow me away as I’d hoped. But it certainly deserves its unanimous plaudits and is absolute must-see theatre, particularly for Anderson’s astonishing Blanche that really overshadows everything else. There’s a daily ballot for tickets at 5pm (1pm for matinees) so put your name down every day until you get in. If not, then NT Live are wisely broadcasting it to cinemas on 16 September. This may be the end of the season but this exciting production will send it out in a blaze of glory.

A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Young Vic until 19 September with a £20 daily ticket ballot drawn at 5.30pm (put your name down at 5pm). It will be broadcast to cinemas via NT Live on 16 September.


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