[Damsel in Distress]
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is regarded as undeniable classic of the American playwriting canon, however one I haven’t been exposed to before. On opening night of Melanie Luckman’s Court Theatre production, it seemed obvious that it’s not a work commonly known to people of my generation, as my friend and I were the youngest by quite a large margin in the show’s audience.
Highly evocative of the 1940’s New Orleans back-alleys, Julian Southgate’s set has a derelict and humble quality, unembellished and no-nonsense. We can see the run-down inner city ghetto from Blanche’s (Claire Dougan) perspective, suggesting an undercurrent of terror spaces like this can bring for a lost woman.
Act I introduces us to our protagonists, with a tense, staggering dialogue between the Blanche, Stella (Amy Straker) and Stanley (Chris Tempest). We are brought into the context of a passionate relationship between a docile young Stella and her handsome, powerful husband Stanley and his gang of friends and neighbours. Straker’s subtle performance as Stella draws my attention – her quiet and doe-like manner allowing for the blossoming of a simultaneously submissive and defiant character. As Blanche’s sister, Straker’s performance was dimensional yet restrained. Hillary Moulder’s upstairs neighbour Eunice adds a lighthearted and entertaining performance to the cohort, allowing for the tension of the play to be relieved at points when necessary. Moulder’s character contextualises the conflict as a product of the culture and community in which Streetcar takes place. The cast also included Tom Eason as Mitch, Cameron Douglas as Steve, Fergus Inder, Isaac Pawson, Anita Mapukata and Hester Ullyart making for a tight and strong ensemble.
The contentious entrance of Blanche gives a comedic visual metaphor of a pure-white lady in a scary, run-down neighbourhood. My first impression of the story was that it illustrated the virtuous woman against her sinful sister, who was punished mercilessly at the hands of the men. Blanche’s openly stated fears begin to materialise in front of her, her hysterical manner slowly exposing itself. This gives way to her ongoing psychological undoing despite her attempts to reclaim a life, a portrait by Williams of the difficult social and economic environment that was post-war America.
I was taken aback by the violence in the play, which feels dated in the way it illustrates violence and the abusive relationship between Stanley and Stella, often feeling like Blanche is the only person who is acting in a reasonable manner, attempting to tell her sister that it is wrong to stay in an abusive relationship. But Blanche also has delusional dreams of stealing away her sister and moving back home where they could be safe sidled next to her Texan oilman coming to rescue her from certain economic failure. Blanche’s neurosis comes across to me as more a punishment than a response, which I thought was unfair, however true to the period. I believe if the play would have been written today, it would have shown Blanche overcoming her circumstances in a way the violence she endured wouldn’t condemn her to life in a hospital.
During the height of the tension in the dramatic final scenes, Giles Tanner’s lighting and Matt Short’s sound design brings in a supernatural element of stage design. It seems as if the audience is joining in at times, whispering Blanche’s delusional voices.
Streetcar is a legendary play and The Court has produced a great work of theatre craftsmanship. But, as nostalgic and sweet as it is to enjoy old favourites, I feel this may need some level of deconstruction in order to understand what Tennessee Williams was truly trying to describe when he sends Blanche away. A warning to those that allow violence to slip through their fingers, and do not condemn nor discuss it.
A Streetcar Named Desire plays at Court Theatre 22 February to 14 March, 2020.