A Streetcar Named Desire
Rebecca Frecknall breathes fresh life into Williams’ classic tragedy.
“It’s a play about the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the savage and brutal forces of modern society.” This was the response from Tennessee Williams when asked what his play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was about. The Almeida production, currently running at the Phoenix Theatre in a West End transfer, honours the playwright’s vision in a stunning interpretation which puts mental illness centre stage.
The casting of Paul Mescal (Normal People) as Stanley Kowalski is no doubt behind the outrageous top ticket prices and his performance is full of quiet menace and power, but for me the star of the show is Patsy Ferran. Her Blanche DuBois is a revelation: fragile, traumatised and deeply affecting from the moment she tentatively steps onto Madeleine Girling’s beautifully spare and dimly-let set.
The non-naturalistic style also honours what Williams termed ‘plastic theatre’. The stage, a raised circular platform around which the cast move freely, is a powerful metaphor for Blanche’s psyche and her tragic journey from neurosis to psychosis. Peter Rice’s sound design is rich and evocative: blue piano is replaced with almost tribal drumming which perfectly transports the audience into the brutal world of Stanley’s “party of apes.” We hear, as well as feel, Blanche’s descent into fevered ‘madness’.
The ghost of Allan Gray, Blanche’s ‘degenerate’ young husband, is a constant haunting presence, beautifully captured in slowly mimed sequences which evoke the quicksand into which Blanche is slipping. She is no self-pitying snob in this production: Ferran’s sensitive and tender performance feels like an urgent demand to understand the sources of trauma. In this the play speaks urgently to our current mental health crisis. Also woven into the play, it feels, is the ghost of Williams’ own sister, Rose, whose pre-frontal lobotomy he never forgave himself for failing to prevent.
Anjana Vasan is a knowing Stella: strong in her conviction that she is “not in anything [she] wants to get out of” with her abusive husband Stanley. Dwane Walcott’s gentle giant Mitch is, thankfully, not played for laughs. There is a painful tenderness in his doomed relationship with Blanche: “You need somebody. And I need somebody, too. Could it be – you and me, Blanche?”
Inviting us into the dark recesses of Blanche’s mind, a single lightbulb, covered by a red paper lantern for most of the play, is suspended over the stage in Lee Curran’s lighting design. The ravishment of the tender is sealed in the play’s most shocking and disturbing act of sexual violence as Stanley, a matador cloaked in his red silk wedding night pyjamas, closes in with animal joy.
Blanche’s pained and furious rejection of realism is what lingers long in the memory after this superb production. “I want magic” she screams at Mitch. It is testament to the enduring power and compassion of Williams’ writing that her pained demand for escape and illusion is something we not only understand but wish we could grant.
A Streetcar Named Desire is running at the Phoenix Theatre in London until 6th May 2023