Review – A Streetcar Named Desire, Leicester Curve Studio, 24th October 2015

A Streetcar Named DesireI’ve been an admirer of the plays of Tennessee Williams for as long as I can remember. I recall being blown away by a TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was about 16, then I took a young lady to see The Glass Menagerie when I was 17 (what a romantic gesture that was!) and the only other time I’ve seen A Streetcar Named Desire was at the Oxford Playhouse back in 1978, directed by Nicolas Kent. So it was high time I got reacquainted with the play. Mrs Chrisparkle had also never seen it, nor had our friend, Lady Lichfield, who struggled up to Leicester by train on the most circuitous of routes, but that’s another story.

Blanche arrivesI had forgotten what a simply magnificent play this is. It is so beautifully written, creating an uncertain air of mystery with almost every new plot progression, that you, as an audience member, can interpret it in many different ways. These basic plot details are for certain: Blanche Dubois has come to visit her sister Stella who lives in a dingy downstairs flat in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Blanche seems used to a more refined lifestyle, dressing in lace and assuming an almost unnatural politesse. Stella, however, has married Stanley, an uncultured Polack (Blanche’s word), and appears content to live with (indeed emotionally and sexually satisfied by) his violent and brutish behaviour. The Grand Estate – Belle Reve – where Blanche and Stella were brought up has been “lost”, and Blanche is now homeless. Stella hasn’t forewarned Stanley that his sister-in-law is coming to stay, and it’s fair to say that they don’t hit it off. In the following months, Blanche gets courted by one of Stanley’s poker-playing buddies, Mitch, who’s less Neanderthal than the rest of them; but her past catches up with her and none of it ends happily. I could go into more detail about the plot but a) you probably know it already, b) maybe you don’t want to know it, and c) there’s a fine line between what you see on stage and what might just be figments of Blanche’s imagination. Although Blanche is taken away by a doctor and nurse at the end of the play, it’s debatable at which point her mental instability takes control. It could be at the end of the play, it could be much earlier; and what you see may be a hazy blend of reality and fantasy. That’s just part of the play’s mystery.

Dakota Blue RichardsIt was first produced in 1947 and had its first UK production in 1949, directed by Laurence Olivier and with Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Of course, back in those days, drama was censored on the British stage and the producer had to apply to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for a licence to perform. This must have provided more than a few difficulties for the censor, as the play deals with – amongst other things – insanity, victim mentality, suicide, rape, and paedophilia. But none of this was, apparently, a particular problem. The only thing that almost caused the production to be banned at the last minute was the story about Blanche’s late husband Allan, whom she found in flagrante delicto with someone else: “Then I found out. In the worst of all possible ways. By coming suddenly into a room that I thought was empty – which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…the boy I had married and an older man who had been his friend for years”. For the censor, this was the bridge too far. The reference to homosexuality had to go. Bizarrely, the censor himself suggested it should be replaced so that Allan should have been caught at it with a black woman. Eventually a cut was agreed, with the line now just reading “which wasn’t empty, but had two people in it…” And that is how it reads in my Penguin edition of the play and how it is currently spoken in this Curve production. Oddly, by not spelling out precisely what it was that Blanche saw her husband doing, it actually adds to the play’s overall air of mystery.

Stella and StanleyI had read some very disappointing reviews of this production after press night – none of which are remotely recognisable to the show we saw on Saturday – so I can only assume that the team have continued to work on earlier criticisms, because we all thought the show was quite brilliant. Michael Taylor’s set cleverly encompasses the several acting areas of the play – the Kowalskis’ two roomed apartment, the bathroom, the porch area, Eunice’s flat upstairs, even the streets around New Orleans. There’s a very realistic rain effect right at the end of the play that might get your knees and legs wet if you sit in the front row (as we did, but it’s great to be almost part of the action). There are lots of off-stage music effects that confront and unsettle you, the emotionally moving image of the flower vendor selling her flores para los muertos, and, of course, there are some magnificent performances.

Natasha MagigiThe character of Blanche is so central and so iconic that it is vital to get it right – and Charlie Brooks gives us a terrifyingly stressed Blanche; jittery, anxious, and clearly disturbed right from the start. Mrs C and Lady L both thought that her characterisation made the first act rather frenetic – you were constantly being so bombarded by her words and her anxieties that you hardly had time to reflect. I think that’s possibly true – but I also think it’s entirely justified. In fact, I found it virtually impossible to take my eyes off Ms Brooks all the time she was on stage, so vividly and profoundly did she inhabit the character. I thought it was an amazing performance. We’d seen her a few months earlier in Beautiful Thing and she was terrific in that too – she’s not putting a foot wrong at the moment.

Sandy Foster and Natasha MagigiHer anxiety makes the perfect contrast with Dakota Blue Richards’ portrayal of Stella – calm, collected, accepting, practical, and surprisingly assertive. When Blanche tries to load the emotional blackmail on her she simply rejects it; when Stanley behaves badly to her sister she remonstrates with him. Nevertheless, she’s no match for Stanley’s brute force, and the simplicity of her return to him after he’s assaulted her speaks volumes about what she wants from life – and we the audience watch disapprovingly at her contentment with her victim status. Ms Richards gives us a Stella of great clarity and warmth; and turmoil too, when she wonders if she has done the right thing by bringing the doctor to Blanche. That was the moment when both Mrs C and Lady L reached for the Kleenex.

Stewart ClarkeThere’s also a wild and brilliant portrayal of Stanley by Stewart Clarke; loud, cruel, calculating, and intimidating – a really strong and intense performance, never straying into an over-the-top pantomime, but always unpleasantly believable. There are also some great supporting performances from Sandy Foster as Eunice, and Patrick Knowles as Mitch,Charlie Brooks both caught up in an environment where survival of the fittest and not rocking the boat is an imperative, even if you have to do things of which you are not proud.

A stunning production of what is still a very moving and important play – one of those theatre experiences that will live on long after you come home. It’s on at the Curve until 7th November – strongly recommended!

Production photographs by Manuel Harlan

Review – Arcadia, Oxford Playhouse, 14th April 2015

ArcadiaTom Stoppard. A dramatist for whom I have immense respect. As a teenager who used to devour play texts like nobody’s business I did my best to keep up to date with all his works. I read Albert’s Bridge, and If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank; After Magritte and Artist Descending a Staircase. I hooted with laughter at the production in my brain of The Real Inspector Hound. At school, we read (for fun, because our teacher loved him) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with its amazing off-stage existence – we were also taken to see the National’s production at the Duke of York’s. We also went on school trips to see Jumpers at the National (a philosophical fantasy) and Dirty Linen at the Arts (where I sat next to our other English teacher whom we all called Andy, later to become more famous as the writer and broadcaster A. N. Wilson). I read Travesties, even though I hadn’t a clue who Tristan Tzara was. I took a prospective girlfriend to see Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (no chance). I saw the original productions of Night and Day, The Real Thing and On The Razzle and found them riveting. I took the newlywed Mrs Chrisparkle to see Hapgood and we loved it. Then, for some reason, I don’t think we saw any new Stoppards again – only revivals.

It didn’t take long for Stoppard’s reputation as a master dramatist to take hold. Certainly when I was reading English at Oxford (not known for its fondness for the avantgarde) Stoppard was a featured author if you took drama as a specialised subject – and that was way back in 1980. Today there are student crib notes and study guides for many of his works. It seems to me that he is as studied as he is performed or watched on stage.

Flora MontgomeryNormally, at about this point in a review, I would give you a quick run-down of the plot. However, this time I don’t think I can give the plot justice. There’s so much in there, so much to understand, so much that you need to be able to recognise from your own knowledge; and I confess, especially as a non-scientist, there were considerable areas of it that I just didn’t understand at all. Stoppard assumes a level of intelligence and education in his audience, and, frankly, although I am no dimwit (honestly), I don’t think I came up to the mark. What I can tell you is that events in the early 1800s and events today are mirrored and juxtaposed in a clever and telling way. I can tell you that the 19th century plot contains a tutor who enjoys sexual congress with married women, a wronged husband/poet, a precocious student, and an ambitious plan to create a landscaped garden. The 20th century plot contains rival academics with their own theories to prove about the same wronged poet and same garden. And those academics get it wrong.

There are some particularly enjoyable aspects. We both really appreciated the central notion that modern day academics will misinterpret events in the past to suit their own ideas. Much sweat is shed over the identity of the secret hermit (an invention in a schoolgirl prank) or whether Byron shot the missing poet (no he didn’t). The facts as they are actually known get reassembled, and the gaps filled with hope and guesswork, by the academics to create a lie. As you can imagine that idea went down very well with an Oxford audience. As Christopher Hampton wrote in his excellent 1970 play “The Philanthropist”: it’s much more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true.

Arcadia comes top of many people’s lists as one of the best plays of the 20th century and as Stoppard’s finest hour. I can see why. As I’ve indicated earlier, it encompasses a vast array of thought. It’s extraordinarily inventive, has plenty of witty Stoppardisms, and even features a tortoise (just like Jumpers). It pits chaos theory against determinism, 19th century against 20th century, academic motivation against sexual motivation. It ties up all its loose ends into a very satisfactory whole. I bet it’s magnificent to read.

Wilf ScoldingAnd that’s really at the heart of the problem, as I see it. I think this could have been the most gripping and rewarding comic novel, giving you the time to come to understand concepts you don’t come across on a day by day basis, and to get to grips with characters and their peccadilloes. However, as a reasonably fast-paced play, it lost me. It sacrificed emotion and action on the altar of theory and cleverness. We both found it very heavy going, very wordy, very static, lacking any real sense of drama and really quite dull to watch. I liked the general setup that we were watching the same room two hundred years apart, and that it constantly went backward and forward telling separate stories – but when the two eras merged in the final scene I found the clever-cleverness of Stoppard’s device rather smug. It doesn’t help that it’s almost entirely populated with difficult, spiky or rude characters. I found that I didn’t have any personal empathy with any of them – except perhaps for Septimus, the 19th century tutor, because he’s a roué, a cad and a bounder which sets him apart from the rest of the characters, having something of a personality.

It was a weirdly strength-sapping experience. As people around us regained their seats for the second act, we heard comments such as “he’s not coming back” and “they hated it”. One man said “why is it always dark outside when the action is taking place during the day?” (good question) ; another said “the table on the stage is just too big. It takes up all the space and you can’t see what’s happening behind it”. I agree. The table is a constant presence in both the 19th century and 20th century elements of the play and gives it continuity. But percentage-wise it really does take up a lot of the acting space, and when characters sit in front of it, they block the characters or events that take place behind it. Another comment I heard was that people just couldn’t hear what was being said. To be honest, I don’t think there was much wrong with the actors’ enunciations or projections; I just think that some of the words and concepts are so alien to get your head around quickly that your concentration lapses in occasional troughs of despair and as a result you find yourself not paying attention to what’s being said.

Dakota Blue RichardsAs I didn’t warm to the characters, I can’t say that I particularly warmed to any of the performances. That’s not to say they weren’t good. Flora Montgomery as Hannah was very good as the modern, hard-nosed, essentially selfish and rude academic who always has to have her own way. I liked Wilf Scolding as the untrustworthy Septimus, considering his next move as though he were deep in chess. Dakota Blue Richards kept her Thomasina, the 19th century student, on the right side of being an irritating know-all. But really, on the whole, I didn’t care.

To get the best out of this play you really have to be match-fit. Don’t go after a hard day at work, or after a meal or a drink; take vitamin supplements and whatever substances you require to make you as alert as possible. Wear light clothing because your brain will overheat. Alternatively, make sure you read it in advance, then you’ll have a heads-up on what the actors are going to say and you can look a lot of the terms up in a dictionary first. And if that makes it more of a scholastic exercise than a play, ay there’s the rub. This is the final week of the English Touring Theatre/ Theatre Royal Brighton co-production. I’d love to see them perform something a little more accessible.