Friday, 23 September 2016

A Streetcar Named Desire

Despite the stellar Maxine Peake in the leading role, this production of Streetcar sometimes loses its way

Written by Ian Shuttleworth

Maxine Peake has become one of Manchester’s prime tourist attractions. After an incendiary performance of Shelley’s poem the Masque of Anarchy in the city’s International Festival in 2013, she appeared the following summer at the Royal Exchange as Hamlet. Last year she was the otherworldly title character in Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker, and now she takes on one of the more conventional classics of the female theatrical canon: Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. All of these have been in collaboration with the exchange’s artistic director Sarah Frankcom.

Peake and Frankcom never do things simply for effect; whether it’s a big-picture decision or a fleeting instant, you’re always aware that there’s a lot behind it. When Peake’s Blanche giggles, she’s not playing the coquette – although she does that too, and allows us (though not her marks) to see how desperate it is – but showing just a flash of rueful self-awareness. And when Frankcom introduces three new mute characters as ghostly witnesses to Blanche’s gradual breakdown, then finally morphs them into theian doctor and nurses who take her away, we infer that the previous three and a quarter hours may have been Blanche in a fugue state, inwardly reliving events that have brought her to the mental institution.

Those events consist of her arrival in New Orleans to share an apartment with sister Stella and her bullish husband Stanley Kowalski, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to seduce Stanley’s friend Mitch and suffering constant abuse from the (rightly) mistrustful Stanley, culminating in his sexually assaulting her.

Yet the elements don’t mesh as tightly as you’d expect. Peake is consistently on the ball in terms of characterisation, but her accent rambles conspicuously. (She’s not alone: one of the other characters commits the classic Brit-playing-American error and speaks of ‘Mardi Grarr’.) Fly Davis’s set is deliberately minimal and squalid: a couple of mattresses on the floor, a mini-fridge and a green baize ‘carpet’ on which Stanley’s poker school plays. But why interrupt the action by bringing a vacuum cleaner on for two or three minutes directly after the (strangely underdone) rape? That’s not so much a contrast as a massive deflation.

This is far from the oddest Streetcar I’ve seen: there was the Young Vic production with Gillian Anderson where the entire stage kept revolving. I’m beginning to think that perhaps unorthodox staging, rather than solving any of the play’s problems, simply highlights them.

Until 15 October at the Royal Exchange Theatre, St Ann’s Square, Manchester: 0161-833 9833, www.royalexchange.co.uk 


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