Review: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Almeida Theatre

Paul Mescal stars, but Patsy Ferran steals the show in Rebecca Frecknall's seductive revival.

By: Jan. 13, 2023
Review: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Almeida Theatre
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Review: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Almeida Theatre

Just like Hamlet, playing Stanley Kowalski has become a rite of passage for a certain type of actor. Amongst the most famous and critically acclaimed plays of the 20th Century, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire essentially launched Marlon Brando, so it's impossible to speak of the piece without imagining a bare-chested Brando screaming after Stella.

It's time for Rebecca Frecknall (who's recently been listed by The Stage as the 13th most influential person in theatre in 2023) to try her hand at the classic. She directs the star of Normal People and all-round golden boy Paul Mescal in his London stage debut. He's made a name for himself for his explorations of the male psyche, so he feels right at home in this ferocious portrait of toxicity.

The production was off to a rocky start last month when Patsy Ferran stepped in as Blanche DuBois with a few days' notice to replace Lydia Wilson, who had to withdraw due to an injury. The delayed press night meant more time for the company to build the show, which is visibly and positively further along than it would have been in the second half of December.

Frecknall delivers a seductive, intense revival that offers a stripped-down forensic look at violence, masculinity, and how we relate to mental health. A sublime, award-worthy powerhouse of a performance from Ferran lies at the heart of it, turning into another career-defining role for the actress. She is fragile and tough, desperate and hopeful, comical and heartbreaking as she coquettishly paces the space.

The actor is at her best, Williams' script rolling off her in a gorgeous cascade of tight southern drawl and meticulous emotional choices. Ferran has a faded, tired look as she criticises Anjana Vasan's Stella and attempts to flirt her way out of her issues. Vasan, in turn, is stubborn and sensitive as she gaslights herself when it comes to the domestic abuse that unequivocally unfolds in her household.

There's a tenacious vulnerability about her. It becomes fury when she hits Stanley, angry at his behaviour, and agony when Blanche is eventually taken away. Caught in Mescal's villainous cruelty, she feels deeply but seldom crumbles. Mescal is terrifying when his alarming, raw charisma explodes into rage; Frecknall accompanies the blasts with loud percussions that have a startling, jarring effect on the audience.

His fuse is always in the proximity of a match, caught in the typical vicious circle of regret and repetition. Mescal stalks the space like a hungry predator, a lion on a hunt. He leans into this animalistic side of his character further, lowering himself on all fours as he reaches the final evolution of his abuse.

The director has her performers gravitate towards and away from one other in a balletic routine. She explores the inner turmoil of the characters through their physicality, adding brief interludes of a choreography that's half interpretative dance and half slow-motion movement. She gives an almost voyeuristic quality to the production, setting the action in the round and resting the off-scene actors on the sides.

They watch the developments from the sidelines, following the cast closely with their gaze and then closing in and pouncing as Blanche's mental health deteriorates further. Drums accentuate or camouflage parts of the dialogue, heightening the tension and moulding the response of the audience, while Gabriela García's ghostly vocals gently fall on Madeleine Girling's set. A simple platform of wood and concrete bricks hosts minimal props and a few surprising features that confirm the Almeida's cool-kid status.

This is A Streetcar Named Desire for a new generation. It's sexy and dangerously seductive, but doesn't fail to have a firm and uncompromising stance on domestic violence. We're repulsed by Stanley's antics, then by Mitch's. Frecknall's Streetcar is unmistakably feminist and feminine. She hones Blanche and Stella's relationship, presenting them in all their dignity and flaws, building a sisterhood marred by the needs and threats of the time.

Her minimalism and Merle Hensel's gorgeous-but-difficult-to-place costumes establish a universal tale where men keep battering women and women keep forgiving them, while someone's mental health is neglected and turned into an inconvenience. It's a frighteningly and miserably timeless discourse.

A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the Almeida Theatre until 4 February.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner