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Review Round-up: Weisz is Belle of the Ball

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The Donmar Warehouse's eagerly-anticipated and already sold-out revival of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire opened to critics at its Covent Garden base last night (See Also Today's 1st Night Photos).

The play, which successfully transferred to the big screen in 1951 and made a star of Marlon Brando, centres on fading southern belle Blanche DuBois, whose arrival at the home of her sister Stella and her brutish husband Stanley Kowalski upsets their marital dynamic and sets Blanche and Stanley on a violent collision course.

Rachel Weisz (Blanche) and Elliot Cowan (Stanley) lead a cast that also features Jack Ashton, Barnaby Kay and Ruth Wilson. The last major London production of Streetcar was at the National Theatre in 2002, when Glenn Close and Iain Glen played Blanche and Stanley in a production directed by Trevor Nunn. This time round, choreographer-turned-director Rob Ashford (Parade) is at the helm.

Much like when a football score fails to reflect the evenness of a game, today's raft of four star ratings disguises some major discrepancies between the critics' opinions. For example, whereas The Guardian's Michael Billington was “impressed without quite being overwhelmed”, Charles Spencer of The Telegraph found it to be “by some distance, the best Streetcar I have ever seen” - though both awarded the same rating.

Opinions varied too regarding the performance of Elliot Cowan; descriptions ranged from “chaotically accented” to “riveting”. The evening, though, undoubtedly belonged to Rachel Weisz, who, if she glances at today's reviews, will be pleased to note that the strongest criticism of her performance that most of the enraptured critics could muster is that she is “almost too beautiful” for the role of Blanche. And special mention too should go to the “impeccable support”, particularly of Ruth Wilson as an “outstanding” Stella.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “Rachel Weisz captures Blanche to perfection in the early scenes of Rob Ashford’s atmospheric production, where the sounds of New Orleans impinge at all times on the action and a ghostly choreography recreates both the sexual playing away of Blanche’s homosexual toy boy husband and Blanche’s brutal back entry rape by Stanley Kowalski … He’s a brutish offspring of Polish immigrants, not a time-warped reject from Chariots of Fire which is what Elliot Cowan seems to be playing in his chaotically accented performance … Ashford’s production makes more of the cinematic fluency of the action than it does of the musicality, and indeed humour, of the text. You don’t really feel the play bursting through the actors, more parcelled out in small doses, like nips of Southern Comfort … Weisz … is always best when she’s drifting away on her own fantasies. She’s less convincing when dealing with Barnaby Kay’s insistent Mitch, who might offer an alternative, or in conveying the tragic absurdity of her lost status as both schoolteacher and scion of a large plantation family … Ashford creates some memorable ensemble moments in the community - aided by sharp-edged contributions from Daniela Nardini and Gary Milner as neighbours - and Oram’s design is beautifully lit by Neil Austin and underpinned with a low-level rumbling soundtrack of jazz and street sounds by Adam Cork. It’s a good production, not a great one.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “Rachel Weisz … rises to the challenge magnificently. It's worth pointing out that Williams' own stage directions described the character as being about 30. Her undoubted beauty is combined here with a fluttering, birdlike nervousness, and sudden moments of desperate panic, that wrench the heart … Better yet, she seems pitifully tiny and vulnerable in comparison with Elliot Cowan as a big, brutal and spectacularly muscular Stanley Kowalski. Watching these two together is like watching an untamed beast cruelly toying with its prey … Rob Ashford directs an intense production that gains greatly from being played in this small, intimate space, and in dreamlike passages the characters from Blanche's past come back to haunt her … Ruth Wilson is outstanding as Stella, caught between her forgiving and passionate love for Stanley and her deep sisterly feelings for Blanche, while Barnaby Kay moves from gauche gentleness to cruel brutality as the suitor who might just offer Blanche the possibility of salvation … The show is at times a touch too leisurely, and Weisz could dig even deeper into her character's fear, shame and vulnerability, but this is, by some distance, the best Streetcar I have ever seen.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “While no one could convict Rob Ashford’s smartly conceived revival of being lewd, it does awaken the brilliant nastiness of Williams’ writing … At its heart is Rachel Weisz, whose performance as Blanche DuBois ... proves mesmerizing … Adam Cork’s music and atmospheric sound season the drama, and Christopher Oram’s emphatically vertical design, complete with an effective if worryingly wobbly spiral staircase, makes clever use of the Donmar’s intimate space … Over three hours the drama’s concentration is powerfully sustained … Elliot Cowan’s Stanley is rawly animal … After a somewhat uncertain start - sure of triceps, not so sure of accent - Cowan grows, conveying his volatility and energy, though he misses the note of vulnerability so memorably brought to the role by Marlon Brando … Meanwhile Ruth Wilson’s Stella is sensitively imagined - high on the opium of lust, evasive yet compassionate. And Barnaby Kay convinces as Blanche’s admirer Mitch … But the key is Rachel Weisz. Spectral when we first see her, she shows her range as she shifts between sultry flirtiness, light chatter, fevered reminiscence and squawky hysteria … Weisz’s interpretation of Blanche is compellingly intelligent. 'I don’t want realism, I want magic', she declares. This production has both, and makes Streetcar seem a resonantly modern tragedy.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - “With Rachel Weisz playing Blanche DuBois there is also no doubt this production will be a popular success. Yet, for all the evening's merits, the perfectionist in me questions Rob Ashford's production, which is often stronger on externals than the drama's inner core … If anything, the bias in this production is towards DuBois herself, whom Weisz plays with growing power. Looking like a young Hedy Lamarr, she is almost too beautiful, so that Blanche's sensitivity about her age seems misplaced. The sinuous drawl of the American south also sometimes eludes her. But what Weisz brings to the role is a quality of desperate solitude touched with grace … But touching as Weisz is, Ashford's production over-externalises Blanche's dreams and memories: we see not once but many times the husband whom she discovered with an another man and who subsequently shot himself … Elliot Cowan is a fine Stanley filled with the right muscular swagger, surface brutishness and sense of his own worth. There is also impeccable support from Ruth Wilson as Stella, torn between her lust for Stanley and compassion for her deluded sister … but I emerged impressed without quite being overwhelmed.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) - “Let me be ungentlemanly enough to be gentlemanly about Rachel Weisz. Her performance as the cracked belle at the centre of Tennessee Williams’ great play is so impressive that I must point out that in one vital respect she’s miscast. Why does her Blanche DuBois feel impelled to hide her age and her looks from anyone, least of all the nice but dim suitor played by Barnaby Kay? ... Stanley Kowalski … everything Williams hated and Blanche isn’t: coarse, insensitive, cruel, destructive. Marlon Brando took the role in the movie and found in it a slyness, a watchfulness, that Elliot Cowan missed last night. Maybe the vulnerability wasn’t wholly there either. But, boy, did Cowan exude danger and power. At times I felt he was overstating the boorish, crude manners … but he’s riveting when he lolls, swaggers, flexes his biceps, lets rip with a violent gesture or a big, hoarse bellow … It doesn’t matter that the director, Rob Ashford, expands Williams’ stage directions by bringing onstage her dead husband, his lover and assorted figments of Blanche’s disintegrating mind, but it isn’t necessary. You can see the torment of the past in Weisz’s face - and the stress of the present that finally, movingly, horribly breaks her.”

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