A Streetcar Named Desire

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I admit it. I’d never seen the movie. Or the play. And I’d carefully steered away from the other reviews. So, perhaps alone amongst the audience, I arrived at the Donmar on an appropriately sultry summer night with no real knowledge of Streetcar other than that Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh had played two people called Stanley and Blanche, and that it was set somewhere deep in the South.

And I loved it. It’s sweaty and sexy and breathlessly tense, sparkled with humour and drenched in desire. It has the lightness of good tragedy — when you know things will go badly, you don’t need to labour the point — and the darkness of all great romance. And while Tennessee Williams is most famous for his lush, poetic language, there are also spikes of blunt directness that still take your breath away, as when Stella tries to justify to her sister Blanche why she stays with the brutish Stanley:

But there are things that happen, between a man and a woman, in the dark, that sorta make everything else seem unimportant.

And that, at least in this production, is the real heart of the play. Directed by Rob Ashford, this is not the Blanche and Stanley show: Stella is as least as central to the action, and, as played here by Ruth Wilson, is arguably its heart. Blanche, of course, is a performer, and a conscious one: as she says herself, “a woman’s charm is fifty per cent illusion”. But so is Stanley: an immigrant worker searching for a clear identity as a husband, potential father and American. Only Stella is entirely herself, and Ruth Wilson gives one of the most complete performances of the year. Fiercely proud, fiercely intelligent but desperately struggling, as her family crumbles, to create a home she can believe in, her Stella is a woman you can feel sorrow for, but never pity. She’s far too self-aware for that; and her clear-eyed understanding of her situation stands in fierce hard contrast to Blanche’s desperate ducking of the truth.

Stella: He smashed all the lightbulbs with the heel of my slipper.
Blanche: And you let him? Didn’t run, didn’t scream?
Stella: Actually, I was sorta thrilled by it.

Rachel Weisz is a bewitching Blanche, all arching brows and throaty wit. This is not some crumbling vampire but a lush, just faintly over-ripened beauty, her decay more in her own eyes than in others’, trapped in the beam of her own reflected gaze. She has the neediness of stand-up, her life a desperate improvisation, endlessly seeking applause.

The tragedy of Streetcar is not its inevitability, but its avoidability: Blanche has looks and smarts and family, but is so wrapped up in disaster that she fails to see her luck. By the end of the play, and Blanche’s great cry of despair —

I don’t want realism. I want magic!

— we can see that Stella’s painful clarity has brought, for all its shudders, a better life than Blanche’s lies.

Like all of Williams’ work, Streetcar is absolutely specific in its time and place. But it was not written as a period piece; nor, in this production, does it feel like one. The language and the costumes are those of another era; so is the technology, and manners. But the play feels as contemporary as anything on the London stage. Just as The Cherry Orchard, over at the Old Vic, is the best analysis of the recession, and the global swing from West to East, so Streetcar, with its stew of self-deception, sexuality and violence, feels as fiercely topical as ever: Magic ÷ Realism = Celebrity.

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