Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, Royal Exchange

“I don’t want realism, I want magic”

The thing is, if you’re going into a Sarah Frankcom/Maxine Peake collaboration with any notion of it being traditional, then more fool you. The pair have worked together several times (notably on The Skriker and Hamlet) and are clearly interested in advancing their creative vision, undoubtedly a feminist one but equally excitingly, an utterly adventurous one. So to label their take on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire gimmicky is reductive, to bemoan its lack of specificity narrow-minded, to characterise its colour-blind casting thus a fucking disgrace. FYI Cavendish, if the actress playing Stella had been white, they still wouldn’t have been “related”, it’s called imagination.

Having got that off my chest, I should say that this is a remarkably intense Streetcar and it is one that requires dedication throughout its 3 hours+ running time, Frankcom’s key conceit taking its time to play out as Peake charts Blanche DuBois’ startling decline in the New Orleans abode of her sister Stella and her virile but violent husband Stanley. Uprooted from any over-riding sense of particular time and space, Fly Davis’ design has a strangeness that takes some getting used to, its expressionistic flourishes framing some stunning imagery. And this increasingly hallucinatory atmosphere is played up by the presence of Creole figures that haunt Blanche, floating around the edge of her consciousness more and more as her anxieties increase.

Peake makes her Blanche a harder, flinter woman than perhaps you might have seen before, a choice which has interesting dividends. It makes her a more striking figure to begin with, real grit mixed in with her Southern charm but it also mutes some of her innate tragedy which, dare I say it, is perhaps a little overplayed as the walls cave in at the end.

But she is such a charismatic performer and one so attuned with the idiosyncracies of this space that you’re rarely not left in awe at her work. Sharon Duncan-Brewster’s pragmatic Stella and Ben Batt’s combustable Stanley connect perfectly with each other in their exclusionary amour fou and spark effectively off of Peake as she shows us just how Blanche’s demons intoxicate her from within. Stirring stuff.

Running time: 3 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Manuel Harlan
Booking until 15th October

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