Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Michael Emans
Reviewer: Tom Ralph
A Streetcar Named Desire is a play that defies any attempts to move it to a different location or time. Set in New Orleans at the tail end of the 1940s, the clash between the cultures and identities of its two main characters drew on so much of America, and its immediate past, that attempts to change any aspect of it risk pulling apart its entire fabric. Rapture Theatre tread a careful line in their new touring production, and end up falling just the right side of it.
Blanche Dubois travels from her family home in Mississippi to stay with her sister Stella, and brother-in-law Stanley, in New Orleans. As soon as she arrives she feels she must have been dropped in the wrong place. When she finds out she hasn’t been, and that Stella’s house consists of two rooms separated by a curtain rather than a wall, you know this is not a place she is going to feel at home in.
Blanche represents part of a dying breed, the last of a family of plantation owners to leave the family home. She clings to the glamour and grandeur of her past, hiding away from the light to avoid being confronted by what she sees as her fading beauty. Stella humours her, but Stanley is immediately wary of her and believes she has squandered the money he feels he is entitled to under the Napoleonic code in the state of Louisiana.
Lurking underneath his dislike is both a resentment of what she represents and the feeling that she could lure Stella away from the life she is now living. That Blanche would do this, and sees Stanley as part of a less evolved social order than her, provides him with the justification for his opinions and actions.
As Blanche, Gina Isaac gives a compelling performance, capturing the fragility and insecurity of a person bewildered by the world she has entered into and longing for comfort and the kindness of strangers to protect her from reality. While the lengthy monologues in Tennessee Williams script can make it hard to create the sense of someone falling apart, she manages to do this and the final stages of Blanche’s descent into madness are chillingly convincing.
Joseph Black as her antagonist Stanley, is less convincing. The colour-blind casting of the role potentially backfires, as it brings unwelcome stereotypes and associations that are not in the script. In trying to avoid these becoming a feature of the production director Michael Emans has weakened the character. The level of menace and darkness is downplayed, making him less the type of person that Blanche is fighting against than he ought to be.
The sexual power and control Stanley exerts over Stella also aren’t really brought out, and this in turn means that the darker questions posed by Williams of why Stella stays with him are only ever hinted at, and the deeper levels of subtext in the script aren’t explored. As well as robbing the play of some of the power of its very final moments, it also means that Julia Taudevin is limited in how much she can bring to her portrayal of Stella.
Some plays have messages that continue to resonate with audiences today with or without updating. Other plays cannot be updated without being cut adrift from what made them the successes they were. A Streetcar Named Desire falls into this latter category. While this is a very good production, the concessions that have been made mean it never has the potential to be an excellent one.
Runs until 7 October 2017 | Image: Contributed