A Streetcar Named Desire review – Patsy Ferran, Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan find new depth in Williams' classic
Rebecca Frecknall's production has finally opened at the Almeida Theatre
Talk about eagerly awaited. There was an excitable buzz around Rebecca Frecknall's (hot off the back of her record-breaking Cabaret success) production of this Tennessee Williams classic from the moment it was announced that Paul Mescal, of Normal People and Aftersun fame, would be taking the part of Stanley Kowalski, a role created by Marlon Brando.
But then Lydia Wilson, originally cast as Blanche DuBois, was injured and had to withdraw and the press night was moved from before Christmas to the New Year. The fact that Wilson's replacement, Patsy Ferran, had previously worked with Frecknall on an award-winning revival of Williams' lesser-known Summer and Smoke also at this address, if anything increased expectation.
Now it's here, this Streetcar isn't quite as revelatory as that extraordinary production. But it is nevertheless a thoughtful and insightful look at a great and emotional play, one which dusts away layers of accumulated history to reveal the bare bones of a story where death is the opposite of desire, and where the fear of both can tear a woman's mind to shreds.
A programme note makes explicit the way that Streetcar, Summer and Smoke and The Glass Menagerie are all in some ways inspired by the tragic life of Williams' sister Rose, whose mental illness – before her forced lobotomy at the age of 34 - revealed itself in hysteria and physical disinhibition. From the moment Blanche arrives on Madeleine Girling's bare rectangle of a set, it's clear she is near to nervous collapse.
She is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband – embodied by Jabez Sykes – who has killed himself of shame because she discovered his homosexuality. As Ferran makes pitifully clear, it's not just his death that pursues her, but her guilt that he needed her help and love and she failed to give it. It's in rejecting all of the sad ghosts of her past that she has flung herself on the kindness of strangers, living an intimate life in stark contrast to her prim yet flirtatious Southern Belle front.
Yet in Frecknall and Ferran's interpretation, she is resourceful too. She knows she needs a protector and makes one last desperate attempt to win Stanley's friend Mitch into marriage. When Stanley cruelly reveals the truth about her life, he's not just destroying her attempts to make a little magic to stand against reality, he is pulling apart her tentative grip on any kind of future.
Ferran makes Blanche unusually funny. She's neurotic, certainly, with fluttering hands and frightened eyes, but she is also fierce, protective of her sister Stella against Stanley's bullying possessiveness and able to land a good line. Her courtship by the outstanding Dwane Walcott's wonderfully gentle and entranced Mitch makes perfect sense; the scenes between them crackle with rare understanding and final disillusion. The relationship between the sisters is also beautifully delineated with Anjana Vasan's Stella fiercely resentful of Blanche's arrival, a stance which gradually softens to loving protectiveness.
In the midst of all this Mescal's Stanley is presented as Blanche describes him – a brutish brawler, who punches his wife when she interferes with his poker game and rapes her sister because he is so full of inchoate resentment and fury. A smile occasionally flickers across his face, but it is usually to intimidate rather than to charm. Mescal emphasises his violence and his animalistic qualities; when he attacks Blanche, he prowls towards her like a tiger. It is as if any love he has, any kindness, can only be shared with Stella.
Throughout, Frecknall keeps the focus on her actors by creating a stylised world around them. The cast sit around the stage, providing props at crucial moments. Each act begins with them standing together, as if at the start of a rite. A drummer, Tom Penn, sits above the action and provides a threatening soundtrack; the rape is staged in a frozen moment when all the cast surround Blanche, stripping her tatty tulle ballgown from her, just as Stanley tears away her dignity and her illusions. A great shower of water engulfs her, one of many striking images created throughout.
In the final moments, when she is forcibly taken away, in an extended slow-motion struggle, the pathos of her life is almost overwhelming. The understanding this production bequeaths to the play is that in other circumstances, Blanche might have survived. By revealing her strength as well as her fragility, it makes her ultimate fate all the sadder.