fri 03/02/2023

A Streetcar Named Desire, Almeida Theatre review - Patsy Ferran rises above fussy staging | reviews, news & interviews

A Streetcar Named Desire, Almeida Theatre review - Patsy Ferran rises above fussy staging

A Streetcar Named Desire, Almeida Theatre review - Patsy Ferran rises above fussy staging

Torment, toxicity and trauma in New Orleans

Paul Mescal and Patsy Ferran in A Streetcar Named Desire - Prowling menaceMarc Brenner

It’s a long way from the dank chill of an English winter to the stultifying heat of a New Orleans summer, but we’ve been here before at this venue. Five years on from their award-winning Summer And Smoke, Rebecca Frecknall is back in the director’s chair and Patsy Ferran in the lead role for Tennessee Williams’ exploration of frailty and fear, A Streetcar Named Desire.   

The play (or, perhaps, the movie) has achieved the ultimate mark of iconic status, its very own parody episode in The Simpsons, so even those who have see neither version of this slice of Southern Noir will have expectations on seeing Madeleine Girling’s stark set, a raised square in the round suggesting a boxing ring. Boom! A previously unnoticed drummer (Tom Penn), perched above our heads, breaks the pre-curtain hush with a clashing of snares and cymbals, the first of a series of showy interventions that try a little too hard. Such clanging did not suggest the chaotic noise in poor Blanche’s head to me – Williams’ words are more than adequate to deliver that message – but instead the distracting memory of The Muppet Show’s Animal.  Blanche is, to mine the cliché seam, a fading Southern Belle, who has been run out of town after a scandalous incident with a young (youngish for Mississippi to be fair) boy and, with her family plantation, Belle Reve, lost in a nightmare of mortgages and loan securities. Alone and vulnerable, she pitches up at her sister Stella’s two room apartment in the Quarter with all the airs and graces, but none of the money and not much left of the looks that marked her gilded youth. Soon she clashes with Stella’s husband, the thuggish Stanley, who knows that there’s only room for one entitled person in that set up. But his animal magnetism attracts one sister as much as it repels the other and, to Blanche’s astonishment, his brutality is accepted, even welcomed, by Stella and the fuse is lit on a powder keg of simmering violence, psychological and physical.

Paul Mescal (pictured above with Anjana Vasan), as hot a casting choice as one could get right now, gives us a Stanley flooded with toxic masculinity, struttingly sure of his power over his besotted wife (Anjana Vasan, a low key if not completely cowed Stella) and unrestricted by notions of restraint, Blanche’s casual racism, foolish high-handedness and undeniable gender license to act as he pleases, if he ever felt the need for it. There’s intelligence and nascent charm in there too, but Mescal slightly overcooks the prowling and the round-shouldered carriage, unnecessarily so as Blanche, who has a keen eye if poor judgment, has already told us of his simian mien. It’s a performance that sails perilously close to caricature rather than character, but Marlon Brando did not leave a whole lot of space for others to explore.

Dwane Walcott is more successful going the other way with Mitch, Stanley’s army buddy and a somewhat reluctant member of the poker club. He inevitably catches Blanche’s eye before Stanley drops poison into his ear and the one candidate to be the male rescuer she craves, is gone. Mitch is more a 21st century man (actually, more what we hope a 21st century man would be, though the popularity of the Stanley de los jours, the currently incarcerated Andrew Tate, might suggest otherwise) and Walcott’s stillness anchors the play, allowing the swirl of emotions to circle his fixed point. 

Ferran will be a revelation only to those who did not see her Alma Winemiller in 2018, her ability to inhabit the rhythms and inflexions of Williams’ words, her exploration of the pain of disappointment and thwarted desire, her fear of a future rushing too quickly towards her, undiminished – it is strange to consider that she was not the initial choice for the part. The production is at its best when it trusts Ferran to speak of Blanche's insecurities and make her bad choices unencumbered by the theatrical underlining provided by on-stage rain, off-stage percussion and singing or slow motion mime, devices that slow a second half that loses its pace a little as we work towards a denouement that had been coming for some time.

With mental health, misery and misogyny very much at the forefront of political and social concerns these days, Williams’ power to channel his real life sister’s appalling treatment at the hands of an ignorant and callous system is as relevant as ever. This production’s approach to foregrounding those themes with extraneous bells and whistles rather crowds out the the luminous prose in the text. Like Blanche, those words need some time and space to grow, but their poignancy still shines through and your heart bleeds for a flawed woman led off to a terrible fate with strangers whose kindness will be meagre, only her hulking nemesis finding any satisfaction in the barbaric medical interventions that will follow.         

Paul Mescal, as hot a casting choice as one could get right now, gives us a Stanley flooded with toxic masculinity

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters