Play: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester and directed by Sarah Frankcom
    Written in 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire made history as the first play to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Donaldson Award and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play Award in the same year. I was looking forward to seeing it as I always enjoy American drama productions at the Royal Exchange. However, this production left me in two minds. The entire play largely takes place in the apartment of Stella and Stanley in downtown New Orleans. It is small and without privacy - not a place where emotions can be concealed. Yet Blanche DuBois, Stella's  sister, tries to do just that. She arrives having lost the Plantation family house and land with just a suitcase of designer clothes, a box of paperwork and a brittle veneer of respectability. Maxine Peake, as Blanche gave a masterly performance She dominated every scene she was in, giving an edge to her lines which let you see from an early stage that this shell was thin and breaking.  

As the play progresses, we see the gradual disintegration of Blanche and the complexity of her relationship with her sister. Knowing that Tennessee Williams' family had been affected by mental illness adds a depth to the play. This play had a personal meaning for him and he had close and complicated relationships with the women in his family, feeling guilt at the treatment his sister, Rose, received. Maxine Peake brings out all the neurosis and fragility which Blanche can barely hide. Part of her echoes the gentility of the Deep South and we see a clash between the Old World values of her childhood with the brash New World her sister lives in.

    The apartment is Stanley's domain where he plays poker and rules the roost. Stella lives there by his rules. The lack of privacy and rawness of life there is demonstrated through the set which is harsh and unedifying. The apartment is stark, covered in a green baize-like carpet, and basically furnished with two mattresses delineated by neon lighting and a screened off bathroom, visible to the audience. This is Blanche's only refuge. We see the danger early on which the brutal Stanley poses for Blanche as he ferrets out the truth behind her loss of the family home, Belle Reve, and her behaviour and reputation in recent years. There is nowhere to hide in the apartment as Blanche struggles to conceal her grief at the death of her husband years earlier. As her veneer of coping is chipped away, her personal demons are brought to life on the stage as silent observers of her anguish.

     Despite the intensity of Maxine Peake's performance, I did feel that the other actors were a little in her shadow. The pace of the play seems uneven with the first half feeling extremely long. I didn't quite feel the oppressive heat of New Orleans but Blanche's desperation was clear enough.

In short: Maxine Peake produces an intense and nuanced portrayal of a damaged woman.


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