Monday 19 September 2016

A Streetcar Named Desire – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 13/09/16]

Thesis: The tragedy of all Tennessee Williams’s characters (at least in his early major plays, e.g. Streetcar and Glass Menagerie, which seem to be the ones of which we have a glut at the moment), is that they live in 1940s America. And that’s pretty much it. (Well, no. Their tragedy is really that Tennessee Williams lived in 1940s America when he was writing them, and as such, his miserable life, conditions and concerns became their miserable life, conditions and concerns.)

Thesis: Thanks to his depression, alcoholism, and illegal homosexuality, Williams appears to have been entirely blinded to the fact that he lived (and set his play/s) in a country practising apartheid. At. No. Point. in A Streetcar Named Desire (script) do you ever even begin to feel the shadow of some proto Rosa Parks not even being able to ride on the same part of said streetcar.

Thesis: The plays of Tennessee Williams should be put out to pasture until they are out of copyright and directors are free to cut at least a few hours of his interminable dialogue, or replace it with stuff, and deconstruct the fuck out of these hideous relics of American drama?

Well, yes and no. In light of the above, Sarah Frankcom’s new production of Streetcar for the Royal Exchange is an interesting halfway house of a production.

To limited, English eyes (hello, Dominic!) it’ll look frightfully whizzy and “European”; to anyone used to actual Europe, or indeed current UK theatre, it will feel somewhat timid and old-fashioned. It’s the full text, and with the “proper” accents, but played in modern-ish/non-specific/timeless-but-generic costumes, and on a stark, ugly set (“ugly” is not a criticism). It feels like it might have been compromised both by the Williams Estate and an unnecessary deference to the finer feelings of the Royal Exchange’s more conservative regulars (whose imaginary feelings could have been ignored, since the production sold out before it opened). At the same time, Frankcom and Peake have clearly decided that there are some things on which they are not prepared to compromise. This is an intelligent, modern, Manchester, working class, feminist production of Streetcar, albeit one that won’t annoy reasonable traditionalists. The feminism is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the production. As I’ve said before, I don’t really think I even like Tennessee Williams plays. And, increasingly, I particularly think I don’t like Streetcar.

You know that stock cliché of experimental theatre companies where they turn on the audience and say “WHY HAVE YOU COME? WHY HAVE YOU COME TO WATCH [the appalling thing that they have just shown us]?” (most recently seen in the execrable Expensive Shit at the Traverse)? Generally I find it embarrassingly naff (the answer is usually: “because you begged us to come, with flyers, and advertising, [and (in my case) press comps,], and we didn’t even know what was going to happen in the show until it just happened. You dicks.”). Here, though, I really think it’s an important question. What the hell does anyone get out of seeing this? What the hell is this play? I mean, most people know Streetcar, right? And the end-game is always the same; this is a play where the tragic female lead character always “goes mad” and always gets raped (until the Williams estate can’t legally require that it happens any more). So, when we think “Ooh, I’d like to see [such and such actress] in Streetcar,” what are we actually thinking?

Is a question that Frankcom and Peake (appear to) have done their level best to answer, attacking the traditional dynamic as much as it’s possible to attack it without actually changing anything anyone says, or really being allowed to attack it. I don’t think Streetcar is a feminist play, but I do think this is a feminist production. This tension is fascinating. For example, Peake’s Blanche appears to be more self-reliant, and together, and just plain sturdy than any other I can think of/remember/imagine in the play’s production history...

– “I’ve just been flirting with your husband” says Blanche to sister Stella, “Not in this production you haven’t!” thinks everyone in the RX –

It’s interesting that there are pre-publicity interviews with Frankcom where she says her main way into the play was Blanche’s clear alcohol addiction. This doesn’t especially show either. I mean, the play is kinda cagey; on one hand, it clearly legislates for a certain number of drinks and the first scene ends with her throwing up, but Peake here hardly gives the impression of having had too much. There’s not that completely jarring, worrying sense of someone who is really in trouble. Indeed, as Trueman also notes, there’s a distinct air of Thatcher about Peake’s Blanche. That blue jacket, that hair-do, that attitude of superiority, that denigration of “Polacks” (so, ok, Thatcher-with-added-Brexit-nastiness).

[I do really wish everyone had just done the play in their real accents, but maybe with Peake putting on a bit of an airs-and-graces voice. (Fuck it, I just wish everyone had had a Manc accent. That would be best.)]

While Peake is doing all this great work with Blanche, rehabilitating her from “boozy floozy” to glimlet-eyed, alcoholic racist, I thought Ben Batt’s Stanley was just great (but, again, wish he’d been allowed to retain his real accent). Whereas Peake’s path through Blanche felt like it was trying something distinctly new and against-the-grain, Batt’s Stanley feels like a triumph precisely because of the effects this has on their relationship. Every single insult Blanche flings at Stanley seems to land, and wound, and be borne with dignity. I mean, he’s still also a wife-beating thug, and Blanche’s concern for her sister’s safety and happiness in the face of blithe assurances remains accurate. (Less legible in this production the scene where Stanley’s violence towards Stella first manifests [in the time-frame of the play], which adds in the lights that elsewhere signify Blanche’s state of mind. Perhaps this is an intelligent suggestion of some kind of PTSD trigger for Blanche, but it does also have the effect of making it seem like – equally – she could be imagining the violence as much as she is imagining the ghostly figures that seem to haunt her.)

More inconclusive are the production’s attempts to solve the play’s race problems (“some of the ideas and imagery (particularly in regards to race) feel underdeveloped,” Tripney; “a troubling hint of exoticism,” Love). As I say, in Williams’s original, we’re being asked to feel a slightly complicated sympathy for the last daughters in a long line of plantation owners. In the many decades since the play was written, it seems only reasonable to note that this is now a bit like being asked to feel sorry for the grown-up children of factory owners in post-Nazi Germany feeling the pinch once the endless supply of Jewish forced-labour dries up. I mean, yes, we can sympathise with the mentally ill and people with PTSD, and maybe even alcoholics and those in reduced circumstances up to a point, but slave owners whose money has run out? Not so much.

On this note, I did wonder about the colour-blind casting of a black actress as Blanche’s sister (but not because I don’t understand how she’s Blanche’s sister, Dominic, you fucking idiot). It’s just, in the context of this play, it feels a bit like getting Natalie Portman to play Ralph Fiennes’s sister in Schindler’s List in order to stop the situation ever feeling too anti-Semitic or something. So, while: yay! jobs! diversity! It’s also several steps back from Ellen McDougall’s brilliant solution when acknowledging the same problem in Headlong’s Glass Menagerie. Worse, though, is not really knowing who/what the two unspeaking non-white actors, who stalk around Blanche when she’s particularly ill, are all about. For almost the entire play. For a while there’s the awkward suspicion that Blanche is being haunted by a Tia Maria advert from the 1980s or something, especially since she tends to take a swig of something alcoholic whenever they appear. Indeed, even by the end, I’m not completely sure their role is ever properly resolved. But then, who am I to take it upon myself to express concern or try to solve this?

But, in short, as you might expect, the aspects which are feminist and working class seemed, to me, to fare far better than the attempts to solve the racial dimensions of an apartheid play for post-migrant Britain. Williams wrote a play (as Cavendish, again) notes, “shored up the American commercial theatre”. He did so by writing about some poor old white people whose lives really just haven’t been the same since some bugger abolished slavery. Their unhappiness is little more than window dressing for a (still unresolved) national disgrace of epic proportions. I honestly don’t think you can stage this play now, with Southern American accents, and not make it about American racism. Still, that’s just me, really. It’s an ok production. Not quite as advanced as Secret Theatre’s from 2013, but not the terrible, terrible mess of Benedict Andrews’s 2014 YV one either.


I like Michael Billington’s courteous and appreciative review of it very much.

I like the fact that Natasha Tripney latches on to things that I don’t see, and makes them illuminate the whole completely afresh.

I like Dave Murray’s candour about just how much the first half dragged and seemed oddly off-kilter (and his subsequent astonishment at the second half).

Frankly, I’m just jealous that Matt Trueman says everything I’d have said, but does so first and with a great deal more elegance and concision.

And, similarly, I think Catherine Love’s elegant excavation of the pieces problems is beautifully done.

Meanwhile, Dominic Cavendish’s pursuit of his editors’ right-wing agenda – purely in order to hang on his job at all, one hopes – is pretty despicable whatever the reason. Imagine actively trying to become the poor man’s Quentin Letts. What a wretched place to find yourself.


Anonymous said...

Slavery was a global institution practiced by all races and self-eliminated in white countries following the Industrial Revolution. Though it continued on with great energy in Africa and Asia thereafter. So it's odd how Haydon goes on about America's South and tries to spin according to some Marxist-tinged (no doubt) template only enforcing the suspicion many people have (and should have had long ago) that many people working in the theatre today are really political operatives with political agendas who happen to choose the theatre as their chosen patch from which to launch their mortar shells against various aspects of western culture. The critic here could just as easily staked out the classroom or the political backroom to exercise his demons. Little of what he says has to do with the world Williams evoked. Casting Blanche with a Black actress is of course nonsense casting as if race does't matter. If race doesn't why not gender? Cast a man as Blanche? How about a Black Man? So on one hand it "doesn't matter" when it comes to casting but it matters enough for the critic to interpret the entire play in a race-based way.Amazing the bete noir of their Leftist's dreamworld, Thatcher is so over powering that her name is invoked when describing Blanche (and a Black Blanche at that!). Such insanity will for sure continue while these political operatives continue to us the theatre to proselytize for their obsessive political leanings and insist we read into dramatic literature and staged work things that have little to nothing to do with the universe the playwright created. It also seems such politically rabid people feel that by making their criticisms sound like an MA thesis that it somehow lends credence to their convoluted anti-western, anti-white (and probably anti-Christian) rantings.

Nullifidian said...

What a shame your anonymous commenter didn't have more staying power. I'd have loved to have read more ignorant drivel along the lines of saying how it's "odd" to mention the American South when reviewing a play set in that locale. It would have been hilarious.

Andrew Haydon said...


There is another whole tranche of comment on the Yerma review that follows this one. Then they seemed to give up, sadly... :-/