Another week, another radically staged, richly symbolic Tennessee Williams revival from a hugely promising young female director. But whereas Rebecca Frecknall‘s superlative Summer and Smoke at the Almeida uses ticks and tricks to strip down Williams’ drama down to its core, Chelsea Walker‘s A Streetcar Named Desire all too often puts the magic box before the meat. Her revival at Nuffield Southampton Theatres’ sparkling new inner-city space is arresting to look at, sometimes exquisitely so, but it never feels conceptually whole. It doesn’t discover anything new.
But then, it’s difficult to do with a play as familiar and fawned over as Streetcar. Walker sets the whole thing inside a shallow, open-fronted, pale-wood box, the costumes decidedly contemporary (basketball vests and boardshorts for the men, crop-tops and hot-pants for the women), the furniture timelessly Ikea, the Stëllå range. Pop songs repeatedly echo through the room. It could be an attempt to make Williams’ classic conflict between refinement and animalism relevant for the woke, Weinstein era, but the patchy performances don’t square up with this.
They’re mismatched – some classical, some almost comically modern, some veering between the two. Patrick Knowles’ Stanley struts about in Nike sneakers like a trailer-park tough-guy, his accent wavering between Boston and Brixton. Amber James’ Stella feels authentically Southern, as does Dexter Flanders’ Mitch, but traditionally, tastefully so. Walker keeps the dialogue sparky and spirited for the most part, but there’s barely a hint of contemporary colloquialism to its delivery.
At the centre of this mish-mash of accents and approaches sits Kelly Gough’s white-dressed Blanche. She puts in a terrific performance, the production’s best by a long chalk, starting out with a playful, slumber-party sensuality, before losing herself in a fug of whiskey slugs and daydreams. Come the conclusion, she’s a soaking wet, sloppily staggering mess. Rarely does Blanche’s fall from grace meet with such a hard landing.
Walker and designer Georgia Lowe, together with lighting man Lee Curran and sound designer Giles Thomas, craft some truly breathtaking moments. When Blanche seduces a thoroughly intimidated paper boy, she does so in a burst of disco balls and Blondie. When she confesses her troubled past to Mitch, she does so amid a shower of orange-tinted rose petals and skittish jazz music. When Stanley brutally asserts himself, she holes herself up in a glass-box shower, the set collapsing around her, along with her pretensions.
Does Walker assert herself a bit too much in the second half? Perhaps, but that really depends on your opinion of avant-garde, Ivo van Hove flair. She’s definitely a visionary director and certainly one to watch. It’s just a shame a patchy cast and an incoherent concept turn her Williams revival into a bit of a mess. A beautiful mess, like Blanche.
A Streetcar Named Desire runs at NST City until 31 March and then tours.