A Streetcar Named Desire - National Theatre 2002
Without doubt Tennessee Williams' finest creation, Blanche DuBois, offers an actress the part of a lifetime and in recent years we've seen first Jessica Lange and now Glenn Close tackle this most demanding of roles. The archetypal fading Southern belle, Blanche is both a fully realised character and a metaphor for the sensitive spirit, inherently fragile and often bruised by the harsh realities of life. Trevor Nunn's excellent production, frustratingly halted on this night by a technical hitch, captures the spirit of Williams play with lyrical precision. He's admirably aided in this endeavour by Bunny Christie's imaginative, revolving set which vividly conveys the New Orleans of the late Forties. A dilapidated tenement block stands foreground and as the play unfolds the sounds of street life echo from every corner; it's a richly textured dramatic canvas that lends the play atmospheric depth and fluidity.
Formerly residing in a grand Southern mansion, now lost, Blanche is horrified by her sister's shambolic abode of two rooms narrowly separated by a thin curtain. She's equally repulsed yet also strangely compelled by Stella's brutish husband Stanley (Iain Glen) who becomes her personal nemesis, a man of limited imagination who sees in Blanche only a posturing phony who threatens his marital happiness.
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More than half a century on, Streetcar has become a theatrical monument. With that mythic weight comes the danger of a new production fossilising the play, especially within the American realist tradition flourishing around it since 1947. Trevor Nunn's commanding new version, however, recreates a world decidedly gone with the wind, by removing it from the heritage of American realism. Bunny Christie's elaborate, phantasmagoric set, for example, ascends into the rafters of the Lyttelton stage and revolves frequently to reveal not just the decayed French Quarter but also the oddly ample rooms of the Kowalski house, making the locale seem at once both more surreal and more heroic than otherwise imagined. Instead of a naturalistic tragedy about one woman's destruction at the hands of an aggressive man, Nunn gives us a dreamscape, more like Strindberg than Ibsen, more Miss Julie than Hedda Gabler. This is no prison Blanche Dubois has escaped to from her wrecked life as a Southern belle, but instead a swirling and musical landscape, with a colourful cast of New Orleans bohemians and wastrels. Nunn has decided to give the play an almost epic feel of dilapidated grandeur, as though we have entered an America only dimly remembered if it existed at all: rigid gender roles, exotic period costumes, constantly shifting and fantastical lighting, odd and unidentifiable accents. This environment evokes not so much a specific time and place in American culture as an almost nostalgic apparition of that past, in which a faded Southern belle, who too obviously stands for ante-bellum gentility, is crushed by the forces of a brutal if vital immigrant future.
Nunn has decided to cash in on the ungainly caverns of the Lyttelton as well as on the reputation of his principal lead. He seems to have realised that a star of Glenn Close's appeal made the box office decision to deploy the Lyttelton, as opposed to the more intimate confines of the Cottesloe, license to re-envisage the play. From Close's first entrance we confront a character accustomed to playing roles, many of them quite badly. Close's Blanche often seems to inhabit a different realm from that of the other characters. Her exaggerated and ladylike mannerisms, outdated in 1947, now seem antediluvian. Hence Blanche's bad acting, her unconvincing assuming of roles. It's a brilliant understanding of the character on Nunn's part, and Close plays it with relish. The decision has also helped her turn a liability into an asset. Her Mississippi accent doesn't exist. She instead parodies the kind of Southern accent that American actresses from the North seem to have acquired from old movies. Her melodramatic dialect becomes a feature of her playing a stage Southern belle. Oddly enough it succeeds. Blanche doesn't finally convince any character she's the genuine item. And yet Close is able to convince us, long before Stella vainly tells Stanley late in the play, that Blanche is a sensitive, and quite charming, creature. Glenn Close manages this feat with her indefinable ability to make an audience pay attention to her, what is called star power. When she's on stage, one looks at her alone and listens admiringly. Her face, it is true, is a most responsive instrument. She registers a spectrum of feelings, visible in the large house, without hyperbole. The extraordinary costumes provided by Stephanie Arditti help her stand out in the dowdy locale of the French Quarter, her creamy silks and scarlet satins highlighting the actress Blanche (and Close) is. She plays to an audience both on and off stage, never more so than in her wonderful mad scene. But all the characters will see the flaws in her acting, all possibly except Stella. Nunn has exploited his star's presence by having her play Blanche as an ageing movie queen, whom nobody on or off stage is convinced by, but whom the audience take pleasure in for the sheer spectacle of a grande dame having a grand old time for herself.
A consequence of Close's domination of the stage, however, is that we attend less to the other characters. Neither the text nor many memorable productions justify putting Stanley in the shade. But Iain Glen's performance cannot compete with Close's. His Stanley swaggers, bellows, and struts. He threatens and strikes. But he's imitating an American working-class man, not fully inhabiting the role. One might justify his impersonation by saying that he, too, acts a part: the brute who wages a battle to possess his wife. Even granting this possibility, Glen does not fully convince. He seems to be acting a movie role, the American macho-tough guy, and he cannot escape the memory of Brando's mighty film performance. He lacks the needed distance, which Close seems to have acquired. He's not an American, and it shows. He cannot speak, look, or certainly move with the self-confidence of a young American man who takes the world's respect as his due. And Glen certainly has none of the smirking humour that Williams has put into Stanley's mouth as a feature of his self-assurance.
Much the same can be said of the other major players. Essie Davis's Stella looks the part of the embattled focus of the struggle, and she does convince us of her moral weakness and her subservience before her husband. Her final tormented wails as her sister is led away convey deep conflict. But she never communicates Stella's centrality to the contest between her husband and her sister. Something similar can be said of Robert Pastorelli's Mitch. Although the actor is identifiably American, he almost need not have been, as it were, for he does not stand out for his Americanness. Why Nunn has cast him as Mitch is clear enough: he's good at diffidence and gullibility. But his voice has difficulty filling the vast spaces of the Lyttelton. Indeed this could be said of all the major actors. Most of them have done a lot of work on screen, and all of them have trouble projecting their voices into this old-fashioned proscenium house. That they are able to keep the audience's attention for an equally old-fashioned three-hour play is a tribute not just to Williams's fascinating script, but just as much to Nunn's thoughtful and inventive direction.
(Richard Mallette )
Notices from the popular press....
PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Blanche is too tough and Kowalski too sensitive in this miscast 'Streetcar' " and goes on to say, "This Streetcar offers a less than enthralling three-hour ride." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "The greatness of Glenn Close's performance in Trevor Nunn's fine revival." SHERIDAN MORLEY for TELETEXT says, "[Glenn Close] Casting mistake....Misbegotten production." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Glenn Close proves a weird if compelling choice for Blanche debois." He goes on to say, " Trevor Nunn's rather Operatic production is surprisingly off-key with its vitality." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A less than desirable Streetcar....It's a poor production" BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Glenn Close... a performance that was incisive yet passionate, intelligent yet deeply moving." JACKIE FINLAY for BBC ONLINE says, "Nunn's production, and Close's performance...make a powerful impression." "JOHN PETER for THE SUNDAY TIMES says, "With a thrilling central performance from Glenn Close, the NT's production..is nothing short of irresistible."
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