Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Sarah Frankcom
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Maxine Peake returns to the Royal Exchange with a weight of expectation largely of her own creation. Her previous partnership with Director Sarah Francom in the same theatre provided an exhilarating Hamlet. Almost two years on from that triumph, the pair reunite to scale the southern face of that 20th Century American pinnacle that is Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire.
First performed in 1947, the play chronicles the end game of the tragic heroine, Blanche DuBois, as she seeks sanctuary from her past and present demons in the threadbare home of her younger sister, Stella, and her husband, Stanley Kowalski. Blanche’s old school faux-colonial hauteur is at odds with the brutish working class manners of Stanley and his entourage, and much of the play’s energy and humour derives from the contrast. But the cracks in Blanche’s representation of herself are evident from an early stage and are ruthlessly prised open by Stanley’s instinctive distaste for Blanche’s evasion and self-deception. It becomes clear that Blanche has been on a downward trajectory for her entire adult life, and as she clings desperately to some false hopes of salvation, she is tottering on the precipice of destruction.
The set resembles an early draft of Tracey Enim’s Unmade Bed, with a couple of mattresses the dominant feature. A clear screen separates a bathroom housing a tub filled with water – the only territory not shared with other household members, and Blanche’s refuge from them. Fluorescent tubes on the floor starkly light the stage area, providing a clear polar opposite to Blanche’s preference for soft lighting and lampshades. Estate agents might describe it as “uncompromisingly basic”, but Blanche’s disdain for her impoverished surroundings has some justification; the Kowalski’s rented room being a far cry from the DuBois’ plantation home, mysteriously swallowed up in debt and lost forever.
Sound and lighting play a key role in creating the atmosphere within the Kowalski household, substituting for the heat and humidity of the Deep South. Swelling bass chords, rock guitar licks, clicking cicada sounds, and train station clamour, all underscore the mood of key scenes. The radio springs to life with cheesy pop tunes when required. The cruel naked tubes on the stage floor are supplemented by subtle mood lighting and more brazen overhead strobes to illuminate the flashpoints of the drama. Co-ordination of these technical elements is superlative. The simple set allows for any rearrangements of props or furniture to be left to the cast en passant, largely. The one exception calls for the members of the poker school to don overalls and return to the stage with vacuum cleaners and bin bags. Perhaps this is unavoidable on health and safety grounds, but it risks shattering some illusions.
With such a modern classic script, and the technical resources of the Royal Exchange, there is a huge challenge for the acting company to command and centre the attention. Unquestionably this is achieved here. Some southern accents seem more embedded than others, but the key protagonists are utterly convincing in their delivery, and more importantly, in bringing the emotional intensity of the characters to life. Ben Batt, as Stanley, encapsulates animal brutality with a veneer of street smarts. Sharon Duncan-Brewster brings real depth to the complexity of Stella and is toe-to-toe with both Blanche and Stanley when called upon. Youssef Kerkour creates an immensely sympathetic, vulnerable Mitch, a man more trapped by his circumstances than his own limitations.
Maxine Peake is at the peak of her powers as Blanche DuBois. She is capable of drawing out all the vulnerabilities and absurdities, and judging when to play these for sympathy or pathos. She can convey aloofness, helplessness, desperation, playfulness, or despair with total credibility. Called upon to vamp, she can dance like Salome. Blanche is the keystone of this play and Peake cements the part into place.
Tennessee Williams can be a self-indulgent playwright, and his deep south charms do not suit all palettes, but this production has sufficient glories to transcend any caveats.
Runs until 15 October 2016 | Image:Manuel Harlan