Streetcar Named Desire

The second half of the Royal Exchange’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the best hours of theatre you’ll see in Manchester this year.  This is a performance of such intensity, especially from Maxine Peake (Blanche DuBois) and Ben Batt (Stanley Kowalski), who is particularly strong throughout.  The green baize set is perfect for the transition between New Orleans apartment, poker table and mental hospital.  A glass screen really comes into its own to highlight the sense of isolation.  Blanche’s ghosts and demons, personified as actors, haunt her even at the end.  Sound is so evocative, and the modern lights rig is used to strong effect.  As the play closes we feel everyone’s loss acutely.  The pace of this final hour is perfect.

But because the production is geared to come together in the second half, too much is out of place in the first.  The set doesn’t make any sense, the glass screen is distracting, actors’ positions are uncomfortable, and vocal projection is at times inaudible.  Sound themes are consistently evocative throughout, but lights seem forced; the expensive rig that makes the second half come together has to be used for the whole play, surely, but how?  And Maxine Peake excels at later scenes where she rises to the challenge and Blanche’s true character comes out, but she is too feisty for the self obsessed broken woman who turns up initially at the flat.  And that means that the dynamic between Blanche and her sister Stella (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) is out of kilter, no more so than in a key monologue where her sister just listens, unable to effectively respond.  Power dynamics are weak.

A Streetcar Named Desire is my favourite Tennessee Williams play, with powerful observations on human nature that still hold.  Perhaps this play has become even more relevant in recent years.  By setting the scene somewhere between 1950 and today, this production could have pulled out the best of the original and reflected on how it applies to today.  But somewhere along the way the message gets lost.  This is a play of such intensity that the text stands on its own; in this production there is too much to distract from the main message in the first half.  The fact that it comes together in such stunning fashion for the last hour is both frustrating and mesmerising.

It is hard to believe that the same person has directed the two halves.  The first is disjointed, almost naive, and desperately disappointing.  The second is magnificent, full of raw emotion, power and a profound sense of loss.   Until 15 October.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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