A Streetcar Named Desire

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Lyric Theatre, Belfast

4 May to 8 June 2019

A Streetcar Named Desire is a magnificent play, which requires careful handling. At its best – when the casting is cohesive, the personal chemistry crackles and the individual emotional journeys feel complete – it is possessed of a stirring, symphonic and choral beauty.

Emma Jordan’s thoughtful, questioning production succeeds on several levels. It is richly orchestrated for today’s world, a perilous world beset by gender imbalance, male domination,  domestic violence, disdain for intellectual thought and expression, and narrow-minded right wing politics.

Designer Ciaran Bagnall’s bleached and broken slats and stairways fill the stripped-back Lyric stage, creating a cage-like retreat from reality for Aoibhéann McCann’s angular, fluttering Blanche.  But what initially functions as a refuge from demons and pursuers will slowly morph into a prison.  Its chief warden and tormentor is her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, the uncouth husband of her little sister Stella, a man who speaks with his fists when his limited vocabulary deserts him.

The set, burnished by Bagnall’s soft lighting,  is rather a beautiful affair. In reality, however, Stanley and Stella’s shabby, cramped New Orleans apartment is far removed from the refined splendour of Belle Rêve, the plantation house in Laurel, Mississippi, where the DuBois sisters grew up.

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In structuring her production, Jordan has taken two calculated risks: casting Blanche as a 30-year old woman, as Williams originally wrote her, and incorporating a cool, thoroughly modern soundscape by Carl Kennedy, which somewhat dilutes the sultry, menacing atmosphere of the Deep South.

Thus, Blanche’s tragedy is to be broke, socially rejected and mentally burnt out while still in the prime of her life.  McCann’s nervy, overwrought characterisation foreshadows her plight from the moment she steps out of that old streetcar named Desire, an exotic creature invading a run-down neighbourhood.  She kicks off at such a high pitch of anxiety that her mounting psychological instability, fuelled by alcohol and bad memories, eventually has nowhere to go.

Some lines of the poetic text are difficult to catch and one or two vital moments are not as impactful as they might be. Stanley’s relentless act of violation slips by in an instant as the lights cut to black.  From left of field arrives the medical team, summoned to drag Blanche off to permanent committal. Richard Croxford’s psychiatrist has the suave looks and presence to woo her into her famous expression of gratitude for the kindness of strangers but, instead, the scene feels rushed; she takes her leave frightened and uncertain, her suitcase – so carefully packed by Stella – discarded and forgotten.

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The double-edged, physically contrasting sibling connection is not entirely convincing, indeed, Meghan Tyler’s sharply focused, fiercely earthy interpretation flips the production, unexpectedly making the emerging storyline as much about Stella as Blanche.

Mark Huberman nicely underplays the brooding Stanley while Seamus O’Hara’s  kindly, bashful Mitch effectively soothes Blanche’s desperate gesticulating in the harrowing courtship scene, which traditionally represents the last chance saloon for two lonely middle-aged people.

A shorter version of this review was first published in The Stage on 9 May 2019.

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