Friday, August 21, 2009

Desired Theatre - A Streetcar Named Desire - Play Review

A Streetcar Named Desire - Donmar Warehouse - London, UK - ****1/2 (out of 5)
Written by Tennessee Williams, Directed by Rob Ashford
Runs until Oct. 3 2009
Note: Review based on a preview performance.

So while I pre-purchased and planned my London trip months in advance to see Jude Law play one of the ultimate male roles in Donmar's Hamlet, somehow I missed that Donmar Warehouse's main stage was putting on another theatre classic, A Streetcar Named Desire with Rachel Weisz (above) in probably one of the ultimate FEMALE roles of Blanche Dubois.

But love that despite the Donmar Warehouse's tiny size (252 seats), they save 10 seats (prices vary) and 20 standing room (£7.50) tickets to be sold on the day of. So I managed to snag myself tickets for my friend and I, and like my last visit to the Donmar (with the same friend seeing Parade also directed by Rob Ashford), we were astounded by another brilliant production in the wonderfully intimate space.

While I've seen Streetcar performed on stage before (but never having seen the movie... gasp. I know. I'll get on that soon), I still have never really understood the play. I always thought it was all about Stanley and Stella with Blanche being a complete nutcase side character.

Rob Ashford's beautifully intimate production made me UNDERSTAND. Rachel Weisz's Blanche is less a crazy person than a product of unfortunate circumstances and a self-opposing strong willed character with weak and naive understandings of the world. This Streetcar puts Blanche back into the centre of the show. It simmers slowly with subtle nuances that carries the story of an intruding Southern lady who descends upon her sister and brother-in-law in the hot and steamy slums of New Orleans.

Between the actual airless theatre (it did get a bit stuffy), Christopher Oram's evocative set, and Neil Austin's transcendent lighting, the whole production just seemed to sweat and steam away like the hot nights of Louisiana. The laced ironwork that lines the edges of the entire theatre, along with the spiral staircase, a tall door and some drapes that split the stage into the bedroom and the kitchen of the apartment, transplants the Donmar into something that truly feels like New Orleans of yesteryears. The characters seemed stymied and enclosed by the quarters of New Orleans, relegated to the little poor apartment Stanley and Stella have found themselves living in, a far cry away from the estate Blanche has lost.

Ruth Wilson (above with Cowan) is wonderful as Stella, one that isn't stupid, but truly loves her Stanley, as brutish as he may be. Elliot Cowan's Stanley is a pure beast. With muscles ripping beneath his shirts, and a thundering commanding voice, Cowan's Stanley even moves with a swaggering confidence that can be easily seducing when not completely threatening. Cowan's attempt at a Southern accent wavered in and out (during my 2nd preview performance), with some strong hints of throwing in a Polish accent (which I'm assuming was on purpose (?)), which was kind of annoying at times, but his physicality and the aura he presented, was thrilling and awe inducing.

Weisz's Blanche, Wilson's Stella AND Cowan's Stanley all evoked empathy in their own ways and I was able to relate and see moments of myself in each interpretation, making the whole play so much more powerful. As animalistic and horrifying Stanley gets, he's almost an understandable anti-hero here, while Weisz's Blanche is both delicate and delusional and yet almost the most sensible and realistic person in the apartment. While Weisz's movie star beauty may defy the character, it never encumbers her character and simply adds another layer to the complexity of Blanche Dubois.

Barnaby Kay (above) plays Harold 'Mitch' Mitchell pitch perfectly, with a balance of smarts and sweetness that can still be twisted by Stanley's conviction. Kay's "Mitch" is just as much of a victim as Blanche becomes herself, and Kay's intelligent and gentlemanly performance makes it all the more devastating.

It will be interesting to see Cate Blanchett take on the role when her Sydney Theatre transfers their Australian production of A Streetcar Named Desire to the Kennedy Centre and BAM this fall (and I already have tickets for the DC run!), but it's going to be hard to top the intimacy of Rob Ashford's smoldering production and Rachel Weisz' subtle and smart portrayal of Blanche, who has redefined and reconfirmed the character for me.

Vance at


Esther said...

Yay, a theater review at last! ;-) And a great one, too.

I didn't realize the Donmar was that small. Must be interesting to see it in such an intimate space. Were you claustrophobic?

I've only seen the movie and I was just thinking tonight it would be great to see Cate Blanchett at BAM. Although this production does sound pretty awesome.

Unknown said...

I really wanted to see this production. Of course, the chances of me getting to re slim but I'm gald to know it's as good as I imagined it. :)

Unknown said...

Just saw the STC company production and you are going to be amazed! Cate Blanchetts performance is Genius and the entire production is probably unlike any other production of this play that have been staged before... stark, intelligent and shattering!

Vance said...

I read some of the reviews from Sydney so I'm really excited! Maybe there might be TWO productions of Streetcar on my year-end Best of list!