REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire (Silo Theatre)

Review by James Wenley

[A Streetcar Named Trump?]

The cry that has resounded through the ages, courtesy of an iconic performance by Marlon Brando, is Stanley’s forceful “Stelllaaaaa” as he hollers for his wife to come back to him. Stella had taken refuge with the upstairs neighbours after Stanley had struck her.

But in Silo’s production, Stella’s anguished and defeated cries of “Blanche” at the end of the play, are what linger in the memory. These painful sobs for her sister continue to haunt me as I write this.

Tennessee William’s 1947 masterpiece used a domestic setting to reveal the fractures in the wider American landscape. Fading Southern grandeur is opposed with the urban post-war world. It is a collision of two worldviews – represented by the hyper-masculine working class Stanley, and Blanche, the old-moneyed fantasist – that do not understand each other (or rather, think that they understand each other all too well).

In approaching a play such as A Streetcar Named Desire, burdened by the weight of classic status, a director has three broad choices.

The first is to stage in its original time and place (which in this case would be late 1940s New Orleans). The characters are recognised as products of the historical and social forces of that era, but, by setting it at a remove from contemporary audiences, theatregoers are able to find resonances and parallels with their own society.

The second is to abstract it out into some timeless place, in which the characters are presented as enduring universal figures. Designers can have a field day, but, if done poorly, the lack of concrete specificity can maroon a drama.

The third, and the path chosen by director Shane Bosher for this production, is to bring the play into our current landscape. Thus, it restores the contemporaneity that the original Streetcar audiences must have felt when they saw their society with its all its ugliness forcefully reflected back at them.

Bosher’s decision to transpose the action of Streetcar to Trump’s America opens up fascinating ripples and residues of meaning. Bosher speculates that Stanley would have been one of the many economically (and culturally) dispossessed to have voted for the President.  The text itself is not updated to reflect the change in conditions (I imagine the Williams estate would be quite militant on that score), but it is remarkable how readily we can believe the 1947 dialogue can be delivered in 2017.

One thing this choice does is put the boot into a progressivist view of history. If we were watching the safe period-drama version of Streetcar, we might think – sure, there are some things that are still relatable, but thank goodness we no longer live in the 1940s. Bosher’s up-to-the-minute Streetcar says that things aren’t gradually getting better. Indeed, as if to counter the assertion in Obama’s farewell speech, that “the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion” (a play on Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe bending “towards justice”), this production choice suggests that the American streetcar is travelling backwards.   

As I watch, I make adjustments in my head to justify how the action could work for our time.

When Stella (Morgana O’Reilly) shows Blanche (Mia Blake) a picture of Stanley (Ryan O’Kane) on her phone, and she reacts with surprise, I wondered why Blanche hadn’t previously stalked him – she would have, wouldn’t she? Or maybe she had, and just wasn’t letting on? She’d definitely do that too.

As Stanley lectures Blanche about the Napoleonic Code (that states that what belongs to the wife belongs to the husband), I wondered if he might have picked this info up from an alt-right menanist forum?

The confused dating rituals between Blanche and would-be suitor Mitch (Mark Ruka) make a lot of sense. He hesitantly asks if he can kiss her, uncertain if actually doing it would be acceptable. Mitch has the classic Nice Guy syndrome, which still comes with certain expectations about what a woman will do if you do the right things. Meanwhile, Stanley adopts a quasi-feminist line that he doesn’t give physical compliments to women.

When Blanche warns her sister, “don’t hang back with the brutes”, my mind instantly made a substitution with “deplorables”.

It’s all there if you want to see it, and it makes a lot of sense, mostly. But the 2017 setting is a decision that distracts as much as it informs.

Why is there is a Silo Theatre branded logo at the bottom of the Apple laptop? Had the prop budget been exhausted?

Allan Grey, Blanche’s deceased husband, unsubtley becomes an embodied presence (Arlo Green), stalking Blanche’s vision. But why is Calvin Klein underwear the only thing he’s wearing?

Mia Blake as Blanche
Mia Blake as Blanche

As Blanche, alone, begins to mentally break, she begins to take selfies of herself – a trite comment on Blanche’s hall of mirrors and curated story and appearance. (OMG, her social media persona doesn’t match her reality!)

Though Ryan O’Kane’s Stanley, as a white male, is a minority on stage, it is a curiously post-racial environment.

Ultimately, if Tennessee Williams was here and writing about this time, I don’t think he would have written Streetcar as the vehicle. The resonances of Trump’s America can only travel so far.

Williams has exacting stage directions, and if you would follow these to the letter, the set this conjures would be cluttered and claustrophobic.  Designer John Verryt, utilising the wide length of the Q Rangatira stage, goes the other way – sparse and open – suggestive of the emptiness of their lives. A red hot strip on the floor indicates the apartment interior, blue plastic chairs are arranged to show the walls of the rooms.

The characters have no privacy from our glares, emphasising the gulfs between public and private selves. We see it all – Stella playing on her phone in the bathroom, or later, just outside the apartment, fuming after a slight from Stanley and trying to put herself back together. Aesthetically, I’m reminded of the paintings of Edward Hopper, looking in on the lonely Americans framed in their night-time haunts.

A nod to the character’s constrictions comes via the train tracks that stretch out ominously above their heads, the carriages violently speeding past and unsettling the characters. Scene transitions are accompanied by pulsing electro beats via composer and sound designer Paul McLaney. The lighting design takes it cue from Williams’ description of a world “sick with neon”: Sean Lynch blasts the stage with fluorescent greens and oranges. Natural light does not penetrate Stanley and Stella’s domain, Blanche can hide in the shadows.

As Streetcar opens, Bosher dials up the temperature, enveloping the characters with a New Orleans blast of heat. It’s hot. Stella cools herself by pressing a soda can to her temple. When Blanche arrives, you can see the sweat gleaming on her legs. The other women wear daisy dukes, she’s in an austere buttoned up dress, not suitable for this world.

Bosher also dials up the desire. Subtext and subtlety? He’s not having any of that. Stanley delivers his “Stelllaaaa” holler while standing under the stairs in his underwear. The unscripted make-up sex afterwards? That’s hot too.

Ryan O'Kane as Stanley
Ryan O’Kane as Stanley

Ryan O’Kane’s Stanley wears the Brando singlet, and a military tag, and does pull ups during scene transitions. O’Kane’s Stanley is particularly calculating, and while he has a degree of charisma, is in all other respects unremarkable. This largely works for Bosher’s conception. While a usual choice is to emphasise Stanley to become a singular, special presence, O’Kane’s regularity, and resulting lack of empathy, is more pernicious.

Mia Blake’s Blanche appears constantly to be on the verge of an anxiety attack, all darting eyes and put upon smiles. The high nasal register she adopts during her put on stories is her tell. We see her inventions early on when she says that Stella is accusing and dismissing her, but we see only the adoration and concern from a sister that idolises her. Blake’s Blanche is a fascinating study with each slip and restoration of her mask. We can see through her lies, observe her performance, but we are never really allowed to be taken in by her, allowed to believe her fantasy (Blanche famously says, “I don’t want realism. I want magic”). This is perhaps a missed opportunity.

Bosher’s production focuses most intensely in on Stella. The drama of the play is the battle for Stella’s soul – will Blanche, or Stanley prevail? On the question of Stella – victim, or survivor? – Bosher’s 2017 transposition feels the most informative. How can Stella stand it? Why does she support Stanley? (And, since we’re here, how could 53% of white women have voted for Trump?)

Morgana O’Reilly has a luminous quality as Stella, the light that attracts the moth-like Blanche (for all Blanche’s protestations, Stella has in Stanley something that Blanche does not). We learn how much of a dissembler Stella is too – it runs in the family. We enjoy the slyness with which she responds to Blanche stating she almost came after her when Stella returned to Stanley late in the night –  “I’m glad you didn’t” – and as Stella justifies Stanley’s abuse of her, we see how she too is a more than a willing party in pretense. O’Reilly’s performance is astonishing and centers this production; this is very much a Streetcar named Stella.

Stanley’s abuse of Stella is a shocking moment as the violence turns on a dime, but what happens after is telling. The women race Stella up the steps to her neighbour’s house. The men haul Stanley to the shower and let him soak it off, but they do not say much, complicit in his action. Later on, both Stella and Blanche joke around about the domestic they overhear their neighbours having – pointing to the toxicity of the culture and how unacceptable behaviour is not only permitted, but normalised.

When that scene we are dreading arrives – the “date” Stanley and Blanche’s have had “with each other from the beginning” – Bosher is unflinching. Glass is shattered, but Stanley, ignoring his bare feet, continues in. The scene is the culmination of the idea of sex being linked with death, the streetcar named desire that Blanche took to Elysian Fields at the beginning of the play. Blanche lies, corpse-like, on the ground. The moment is harrowing, and tears your soul in two. The image still remains, unwanted, in my memory.

So too those cries from Stella – “Blanche, Blanche…” – unable to come to terms with what has happened, to reconcile her pain and the choice that she finally made.

Silo’s Streetcar is a must, must see. It is incisive, brutal, devastating, and yes, at times, frustratingly incoherent as the edges of the play push against the modern setting. Bosher’s transposition both expands and limits the meanings of the play, though ultimately, keeps the text alive and immediate.

And when it dials in on the death throes of these desperate people, their struggle to preserve their conception of their identities despite all counter evidence, it is a raw and breath-taking theatrical jolt. The rest is just noise, a streetcar rattling past.

A Streetcar Named Desire plays at Q until 16 November. Details see Silo Theatre

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Michael Hooper

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2 Comments on REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire (Silo Theatre)

  1. I cried at the end & I have never done that before.It was sadly relevant to NZ society. The protectiveness of the women charactors towards Blanche was a insightful touch. Great ensemble, fascinating charactor study by Toni Potter playing Eunice. Just could n’t tear my eyes off her, fantastic. Morgana O’ Reilly Mia Blake & Ryan O’Kane & Blanche’s erstwhile suiter what a treasure of a production . Well done Bosher, really glad I heeded the tip off to see this. Peter Verryt’s set, the sound delicious stuff. you so took us there.

  2. & the lighting , like a living work of Art. Superlative, Paul MClaney. Dear Reviewer,you seem to have read a lot into this production , great you’re thus inspired but as Marlon Brando said” An actor is the kinda guy who if you ain’t talking about him, he aint listening”

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