revew: Sarah Frankcom – A Streetcar Named Desire
A Streetcar Named Desire/
by Tennessee Williams/
dir Sarah Frankcom/
The Royal Exchange/
8/9 – 15/10/16//
I’d hazard to say it was the most oppressive weather of the year. The crush had been building for the best part of two days before something deemed it fit to split the heavens, about ninety minutes before the press night performance of A Streetcar Named Desire at The Royal Exchange. The streets flooded, the sky cracked, the trams were cancelled and the traffic up Deansgate stood still enough that we jumped out the taxi to jog the remainder of the distance, up the steps and in time for the show, which mercifully started 15 minutes late. The good thing about nature is that when she plays a trick she plays it on everyone at once.
If the drop in tension isn’t exhausting enough, we are crammed damply in to steam dry over the course of the production. My legs are always too long for any row other than the front and I am not on the front row. Flowers are not native to households. They are, though, incredibly forgiving. You could leave a small plant unwatered for a couple of weeks, it might wither and shrink but if you come back to it in time to whet its thirst, it’ll come back to you.
Sarah Frankcom’s Streetcar is gambled out under and amongst harsh light; Fly Davis’s design brings an immense baize which brings to mind the war table of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. The felt floor is littered and cleared, littered and cleared, the green and the domestic obsession with freshness conjuring the irony of a crisp, clipped lawn in 30 degree heat, of rich whites in blood-red dress. It seems an act of clairvoyance Tennessee Williams would be proud of, to see the press performance take place on the most southern state night in Manchester I’ve ever seen. Reality is more than a little suspended.
A haunted production, inasmuch as it is a performance of a sixty-nine year old script, inasmuch as it is a piece of theatre, inasmuch as the literal and figurative space is invaded, interrupted. Flores. Inasmuch as it is still possible to be someone who watches plays for a living and be more confounded by the idea of a black woman than by sitting in a lunar module inside a cotton exchange during a thunderstorm watching ten adults pretend they are in New Orleans.* Flores para los muertos.
It is enough to make you wonder who is dead, who is dying and who is really still amongst us.
Blanche DuBois, bleached wood, steaming in silk in deliberate darkness. How much quicker might a flower burn if it’s been left in the sun? In a house with walls so thin they can be seen through, Maxine Peake’s Blanche stutters in and picks at the threads. Sharon Duncan-Brewster & Ben Batt, as Stella and Stanley, pick back. The chicken coop eats itself alive – it was a fool suggestion to keep them in such a tight place to begin with.
A house flower attended too much will die. The main cause of death in house plants is overwatering. Yousef Kerkour, as Mitch, breaks my heart in his wringing hands every time he enters the stage. He is a giant boy, not so full of the poison of the world as Blanche, a feminine trickle of cooling water with muscle enough to heft Stanley bodily into a cold bath. Batt, as Stanley, sweeps about the stage, at turns lumbering, then stalking, embodying a blunt braggadocio like a living symbol of the distances between himself and his sister-in-law.
Streetcar is no exception to the Royal Exchange’s tendency to make characters feel surrounded, caged in, potted. Peake’s Blanche is never off-edge, and never really has any trust in her from the off. Her relatives cannot be trusted, their neighbours, friends and the flower-sellers are all in it together. Mental health is, at its most effective, an act of mass hypnosis. Wellness is in the hands of the well and always has been. That the well have overwhelmingly seemed to be more educated, male, white and wealthy than the ill must be a coincidence.
Flowers you might plant on a grave have a better chance of survival; the weather will take care of them. Stanley is as unaccountable as he ever was on Stella’s receipt into a mental health facility. As much as they might be treated like they are, women are not flowers. They may be alternately neglected and drenched but a flower won’t drench you back. Stella never loses her sanity, she is only caught up with. Mitch turns up the hard, unpenitent light and the baize is astroturf, and unbearable exposure, beneath the warmest light of day. The sun, though, is an illusion. Pinned to her sister’s bed, scorched, dried, pressed, Blanche ends behind glass. Safe from something. It is not reality that catches up with Blanche but a different magic to the one she allied herself with.
*’That accomplished black actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Blanche’s sister Stella – the two are evidently not “related”. Go figure.’ – Dominic Cavendish, “Professional Theatre Critic”. Go figure.