King's Theatre Edinburgh (venue)
01 October 2017 (released)
07 October 2017
Tennessee Williams, like some other of his contemporaneous 20th century American playwrights, was never a man to say in an hour what he could say in two hours… or three. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, his Pulitzer-prize winning epic from 1947, is certainly no exception. This production lasted almost 3-hours and 15-min and the three gentlemen sitting in the row in front of me wisely brought stacks of chocolate bars and bottles of fizzy drink along! Or was it a 3-course meal?
The play could have been more sensibly titled ‘The Nightmare that is Blanche Dubois’. The streetcar in question supposedly ran in New Orleans (where the action takes place in the city’s famous French Quarter) and was called by that name. The 'lady' in question (Gina Isaac) comes to stay indefinitely with her younger sister Stella (Julia Taudevin) and her animal of a husband, a 'Polack' by the name of Stanley Kowalski (Joseph Black) though it should be pointed out that due to an error in the theatre program the family name was misspelt as Kolawski! Crammed together in the tiny shack that is Stella and Stanley’s house we sense pretty much from the beginning that Blanche Dubois is not passing through and that she has fallen on hard times. It is also clear that she is an alcoholic nymphomaniac living in a fantasy world of delusion and a troublemaker to boot. It does not take Stanley long to discover that the former 'hotel' that Blanche was staying in was a house of ill-repute. Unfortunately Blanche's put upon sister Stella can see little wrong in older sister Blanche and soon things become rather strained. Stanley is a bit of an old fashioned male sexist who likes his alcohol (to which the alcoholic washed up Blanche is only to happy to help herself) and enjoys his regular poker sessions with his three pals Mitch (Kazeem Tosin Amore), Steve (Billy Mack) and Pablo (Paul Kozinski). Getting drunk one night, Stanley whacks Stella and needs to be restrained by his buddies. Stella seeks shelter with Eurice (Michelle Chantelle Hopewell) – a neighbour and friend living upstairs who also happens to be the wife of Steve. However, the heavily pregnant and occasionally far too soft-tempered Stella soon forgives Stanley. Meanwhile Blanche is putting in the poison and telling her what a backward and primitive animal of man Stanley is. As if the situation weren’t difficult enough, the naïve Mitch begins to develop a bit of a thing for Blanche and starts courting her – to her delight – despite Stanley’s warnings that the troubled and deluded Blanche is not at all what she seems to be. Soon, things are about to boil over and there won’t be any happy ending for Blanche… nor for Mitch who wakes up to reality just in time!
It is a fair point to say that Williams’ plays are hard work for any actors. In the case of Blanche Dubois, her character was based on his sister who was lobotomized. The part was originally written for a woman who was known to be an alcoholic troublemaker. Blanche Dubois is hardly off the stage and may well have more lines to learn than Hamlet. No mean feat for any actress and Gina Isaac does a satisfactory job but still needed to be much bigger and more of a drama queen. That said, Isaac almost succeeds with a convincing Southern accent, while Julia Taudevin’s ‘Stella’ has more difficulty.
As for the casting: in this day and age it is not altogether an unexpected or bold decision for the director to give the two males leads to black actors even if the lead role is traditionally ‘white’. We have had all-black productions of this play and even Blanche played by a man and Stanley played by a woman. In this production, even Steve’s wife Eunice is played by black actress Michelle C. Hopewell. But does it work? No, not really. To be fair, it would have worked if this version would be a contemporary re-working… which it is not. To make us believe that interracial marriages/relationships were common practice in the Deep South of the late 1940’s – a place where the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and racial segregation were common practice even up to the 1960’s – borders on the naïve if not downright insulting. The parts of Stanley and the sympathetic Mitch were (in the film version) originally played by Marlon Brando (Williams would have approved) and by Karl Malden. Neither Joseph Black as Stanley Kolawski (a man of Polish heritage nonetheless!) nor Kazeem Tosin Amore as Mitch, both of their accents seem Southern-black, even attempt as much as a Southern white accent. Of course, herein lies one of the issues with regards of this production and the result is that in parts it comes across as implausible. Having said that, both Black and Amore equate themselves well but not as Tennessee Williams characters Stanley and Mitch.
These comments may well open a huge can of worms, after all, we live in an age where reviewers even daring a hint of criticism concerning race, sexuality or gender will be dismissed as a ‘vile old reactionary fascist’. So why can't a black actor play Bertie Wooster? Well he can if he gets the interpretation right but unfortunately the interpretations in this Rapture Theatre Production don’t always hit the right note. Director Michael Emans’ brave attempt to stage A STREETCARE NAMED DESIRE in a more unusual light lacks subtlety when required while the real challenge would lie in reducing this epic play to 160-min or so and still make it work! It should be pointed out that if you have an abiding interest in theatre then Tennessee Williams is always worth a look and so is this production (despite being simply too long), certain criticisms aside.