BWW Review: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Bristol Old Vic
Tennessee Williams' 1947 classic A Streetcar Named Desire explores the visceral side of human nature: violence, desire, power, loneliness and guilt. Winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, it's been adapted multiple times for stage and screen and is widely held as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.
The challenge, then is to explore these themes without it feeling tired or well-trodden, and this new UK tour, a co-production between English Touring Theatre, Theatr Clwyd and Nuffield Southampton Theatres, rises to the challenge most admirably: it's raw, revitalised and packs a glorious emotional punch.
The design by Georgia Lowe is wonderfully stripped back: the interior space of Stella and Stanley's apartment split into two rooms with only the bare essentials. The cast can also use the space outside, complete with a climbable structure to move the action to various levels.
The entire effect makes the apartment feel like a pressure cooker, and the wonderfully tense dynamics are further amplified by Lee Curran's haunting lighting, which changes colour from cold to warm hues with stark speed.
As an audience member, the diversity in the use of space allows you to hone in on the clever use of contemporary objects such as a disco ball, blow-up bed, or a lone balloon filled with confetti, and there are also contemporary nods in the costumes and music: we hear Madonna's "Material Girl" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass" amid the more traditional jazz elements of the score. It's a production that feels very proud to place the play in a contemporary setting, because it easily feels powerful and relevant.
Performances are strong across the board: there's a likeable vulnerability and sweetness to Amber James's Stella, and a shy charm to Dexter Flander's Mitch.
Patrick Knowles is brutally riveting as Stanley. He swaggers across the stage in his vests and shorts, the centre of lovesick Stella's world, with an incredibly high opinion of himself. Stanley is a man of excess, particularly when it comes to his emotions: anger can quickly turn to rage, and you immediately understand how toxic and voilatile his relationship with Stella is, yet it's often more complicated than that.
Knowles is wonderfully adept at playing with these dynamics. In the famous scene where he stands outside baying for Stella to come back to him after he strikes her, he shows remorse, and you perhaps get a sense of the play as a whole centring on contradictory characters who are a product of their circumstances, rather than simply placed in one box.
Kelly Gough is radiant as Stella's sister Blanche. Escaping a troubled past and hung up on her fading looks, Blanche is searching for magic in her reality, crying out to connect. She is snobbish about Stella's circumstances and hates her choice of man, yet is only herself just about holding it together.
Gough's take on Blanche is graceful and vulnerable, and watching her veneer of self-control and grip on reality slip steadily away as the play goes on is heart-wrenching. The level of detail and depth she brings even to the smallest of gestures is astounding.
The performances, brought into sharper focus by Chelsea Walker's subtle, tension-fuelled direction, tie all the themes together well, and the action nicely paced.
Overall, this new production feels incredibly courageous and timely, particularly in light of the uprising of women against abuse, and how society treats those perceived as "other". Powerful as it was on first publication, one might argue it is even more important and vital today.
Photo Credit: The Other Richard