‘A Streetcar named Desire’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by March 20, 2014

‘A Streetcar named Desire’, winner of four Oscars, was written by Thomas Lanier ‘Tennessee’ Williams lll, his first Pulitzer Prize winner. Williams used the name Tennessee for the first time in 1938. His first published story, ‘Isolated’, was published at the age of 13.

There really was a Desire streetcar line in New Orleans. The route ran for 30 years, being closed around the epoch of this play. It ran from Bourbon through the Quarter to Desire Street in the Bywater. The character of Blanche may be based on Williams’ mentally ill sister, Rose, who after a lobotomy became debilitated.

The Black Swan State Theatre Company is presenting this star-filled classic at the Heath Ledger Theatre, in the State Theatre Centre of WA, Northbridge. The performances are 3 hours 20 minutes, and run until Sunday 6th April. The curtain goes up each evening at 7.30.

This play has been so amazingly popular that it now has an extended season, so please check for new performances up to the 13th April.

 

The amazing set (designed by Christina Smith, assisted by India Mehta) is of a two-storey apartment block in the French Quarter of New Orleans just after World War ll. It is colonial style, with a metal spiral staircase on the outside. On the ground floor is a poor, dishevelled, one room flat.

Matt Scott’s exceptional lighting design creates an extra sleaziness to the house. He has lit each small area separately, often having several cool patches of greens and blue blended with the warm colours to change the mood in the room. When a streetcar rumbled past (very convincing sound design, Ben Collins) the flashing car lights lit up the room, heightening a climax in the script.

  

        The neon sign of a bar shows through the steamy heat of the evening. The soft jazz music of an alto sax (played by composer Ben Collins) drifts from the top floor. A woman dressed smartly in a white suit and carrying an expensive handbag is searching for a house.

       This is Faubourg Marigny, a poor quarter of New Orleans where Stella and Stanley Kowalski survive in their small Elysian Fields Avenue apartment. Although grubby, the neighbourhood is alive, vivacious and with a sensual ambiance.

       Two women are sitting on the spiral staircase, Eunice (Alison van Reeken) and her Negro friend (Irma Woods). They spot the striking, Southern Belle, Blanche DuBois (Sigrid Thornton) an alcoholic who has delusions of grandeur and pretensions to culture. Blanche is truly a delicate, disturbed woman desperate for security in her life. She explains, ‘They told me to take a streetcar named ‘Desire’, and then transfer to one called ‘Cemeteries’. After a recent traumatic period, Blanche is essentially seeking sanctuary with her sister, Stella (Jo Morris). Eunice has a spare key for Stella’s flat. On entering, Blanche is horrified by her sister’s poky apartment, especially after the ancestral Southern estate she has just left.

       Her deceptive poise is not solely to attract male partners, but is a personal shield of delusions and fantasy from the reality of having lost her family fortune and home. Neither will she face the truth about her homosexual husband’s suicide, nor her sacking for seducing a young pupil at the school where she taught, instead she tells Stanley and Stella her problem is nervous exhaustion. Blanche turns to alcohol at every chance.

      As Stella welcomes Blanche with some trepidation, she is terrified of what her husband Stanley (Nathaniel Dean) will say about the new visitor. From the beginning, Blanche is appalled at her brutish brother-in-law. Like all of the other women in the area, Stella is compliant in sex, oppression and in love with her husband.

      One evening, Stanley has some friends around for their weekly poker night. There is Pablo (Benj D’Addario), Eunice’s husband, Steve (Steve Turner) and a middle-aged mummy’s boy, Harold (Luke Hewitt). During their game, Blanche, seeing a possible answer to her prayers, snuggles up to Harold. The anger in Stanley is immediately aroused by this intrusion.

     Next day, when a young collector (Callum Fletcher) calls for the week’s newspaper money, Blanche pays him in her own way.

     Stanley, suspicious of the circumstances that led to Blanche leaving her hometown of Laurel, finds some strange truths about her affairs. Blanche’s grip on reality is becoming more fragile. By now, Stella’s first baby is due any day. A doctor (Michael Loney) and his nurse (Rhoda Lopez) arrive at the house to care for the patient.

 

Black Swan’s resident artistic director, Kate Cherry has been capably assisted in the directing by Lawrie Cullen-Tait and also by renowned choreographer and movement specialist, Chrissie Parrott. The team has produced a visually exciting production, with an especially good interpretation of the script. Every nuance has been demonstrated.

Only one thing is worse than a false American accent, and that is when each member of the cast has accents from different States of America. Voice coach, Melissa Agnew has skilfully guided and blended the cast’s intonations into one authentic New Orleans’ southern drawl. This is not simply an American accent, but it has that extra roughness and Hispanic overtones of the poorer class. Although the actors were most impressive, it took me quite a few minutes to ‘tune in’ and understand the dialogue. Initially, I wished that their skills had not been quite so precise.

The delightful Sigrid Thornton nailed the part from the opening scene. There is a point where she is about to compliment Stella on her youthful looks, and pulls back and insults her clothes and hair instead. These tiny expressions and movements took the whole performance into a different league. Without spoiling the tale, the change in Blanche throughout was subtle in voice, movement and whole body demeanour, a superlative performance.

The beginning of the second Act started with a charming love scene, where poor Harold pleaded with Blanche for her hand; this was particularly well handled. Both Jo Morris and Nathaniel Dean had brilliant chemistry throughout the wild mood swings in their life.

I often wonder if it is harder for the costume maker to create luxurious gowns or to make clothing that looks well worn. A few tears and a bit of dirt rubbed in never looks authentic. The garment makers Lexi Hobbs, Susi Rigg and Rachel McCabe have created some admirable apparel from gold threads to local ethnic attire.

This is a classic play that calls for tight direction, good interpretation and excellent teamwork. Here we have a talented cast giving us a production to remember.