'A heart-breaking tale' - A Streetcar Named Desire @ Bristol Old Vic

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Sasha Semple reviews a new take on a modern classic.

This Spring, Bristol’s Old Vic welcomed the modern classic A Streetcar Named Desire to the stage. A firm favourite of the English professor and one of Tennessee William’s most highly regarded works, the powerful play was given a fresh revival by the English Touring Theatre. Once you see past the obligatory veneer of slightly forced contemporary references, what is left is a heart-breaking tale of love, insanity and loss.

The play opens as the eponymous streetcar arrives at a rundown New Orleans apartment. A fragile woman emerges from the vehicle, her all white wardrobe contrasting against the neon sunglasses and red bowling shirts favoured by the inhabitants of her new neighbourhood. Out of place, lost and notably distressed, we are formally introduced to Blanche - Stella’s -only slightly- older sister. Following a brief reunion as the two sisters proffer the appropriate polite formalities, Blanche breaks down, unearthing a deep unresolved history.

'a heart-breaking tale of love, insanity and loss'

Amber James’ feisty Stella is confronted with the guilt of the past she left behind, the weight of which Blanche brings to her front door, neatly packaged in her pristine white suitcase. Enter Patrick Knowles’ Stanley: charming, boyish and provocative. Blanche barely has time to pour herself another drink before Stanley’s drunken, misogynistic inner animal is revealed. With no regard for Blanche’s feelings, Stanley drops a bombshell, served up with an ice-cold lemon soda. From this point onwards, their lives begin to unravel.

The set is simple: two minimally decorated rooms separated only by a thin partition. The use of roof space added to the claustrophobic feeling of the apartment, a boxed in room surrounded by unhappy couples. The deteriorating state of the house effectively represents Blanche’s own mental decline- both house and woman possess interiors in a state of collapse, that, despite any attempts to decorate or dress up, are breaking at the very foundations.

'Kelly Gough’s heart wrenching portrayal of a woman’s slow descent into madness outshines the rest of the cast'

Marlon Brando’s performance in the 1951 film adaptation may have left viewers shouting ‘Stella’, but it is Blanche’s name on the lips of the audience as they leave Bristol’s Old Vic. It is hard to believe her tiara is made of rhinestones as Kelly Gough’s heart wrenching portrayal of a woman’s slow descent into madness outshines the rest of the cast. Knowles’ Kowalski was disturbing, toying with the role’s playfulness and the power of Stanley’s uncontrollable rage.

The show’s only weakness is its attempt at modernising an already relatively recent play. As a result, the nine months of Stella’s pregnancy feel closer to nine decades. The production is littered with unclear references, from landline phones to KFC to Madonna’s 'Material Girl'.

The confusion with consistency raises the question – is Streetcar a play which asks to be modernised?

Perhaps there is a potential for the show to comment on contemporary issues in light of the #metoo movement. Ideas of female abuse and national identity are very pertinent to an audience watching in 2018 – however it doesn’t feel as though Chelsea Walker’s revival addresses this forcefully enough. Maybe Tennessee Williams’ play isn’t appropriate to focus on such issues, and if it is, ensure the message isn’t lost under a mishmash of disco balls and Blondie tracks.

'the show’s only weakness is its attempt at modernising an already relatively recent play'

One of Blanche’s final lines resonated with me in expressing what the play lacked – ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic’. The adaptation fails to capture the sentiment of a particularly time and place and also shys away from fully embracing its theatrical qualities. That said, the cast's performances are outstanding, their accents almost flawless and Tennessee William’s original critique of a misunderstood madness remains at the play's forefront, just as powerful as ever.

★★★★

A Streetcar Named Desire is on at the Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 21st May - to get your tickets click here.

(Featured image: Unsplash / Scott Walsh)


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