'Beauty is but a vain and doubtful good; a shining gloss that fadeth suddenly; a flower that dies when first it 'gins to bud; a brittle that's broken presently' The Passionate Pilgrim
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire first graced our screens in 1951 with the multi Oscar- award winning film directed by Elia Kazan. The original cast, starring Vivienne Leigh and Marlon Brandon, created some of the most legendary scenes in film to this day. Yet despite its intimidating history, director Chelsea Walker didn’t shy away from the challenge with her tension filled rendition at Bristol Old Vic.
The stage was completely stripped back and minimal; the Kowalski apartment was split into two small rooms, separated only by a thin sheet. The compactness of the set added to the tense atmosphere that steadily builds throughout the play, heightened by Blanche’s obsessive steamy hot baths. Set in the raffish charm of New Orleans, there is a certain romanticism about the road Elysian fields where Blanche takes residence, and this is further built upon by the contrasting hues of warm and cool toned lights that flare across the stage. The lyricism of the jazz age is also unmissable, from the blues lull of the jazz piano to the haunting Varsouviana polka tune. Walker also incorporated contemporary aspects into her production, such as a revolving disco ball that appeared for impromptu renditions of Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ and Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass.’
The cast all gave refreshing performances. Amber James rebooted the character of Stella; instead of portraying Blanche's sister as typically passive, James gave a fiery streak to her performance, resisting being merely a victim to her husband’s drunken violence. Similarly, Dexter Flander managed to capture the innocent awkwardness of Mitch, whose potentiality as a partner in marriage is the only glint of hope that we see for Blanche during the play. Stanley Kowalski is arguably one of the hardest roles to perfect, yet despite occasional lapses in his drawling New Orleans accent, Patrick Knowles certainly captured the dynamism and bestiality of Stella’s brutish husband. Stalking across the stage, his carnal aggression is potent, most notably when he strikes his pregnant wife in a drunken outburst and has to be held back like a writhing animal.
Crucially, Kelly Gough successfully encapsulated the multi-faceted enigma that is Blanche DuBois. She gave a performance that portrayed Blanche’s simultaneous charm, shameless flirtations, narcissism and deception; perhaps the innovative use of the disco ball is also supposed to represent the complexity of Blanche’s disposition, a metaphor for the multiplicity of her projections. Where she desperately tries to present herself as a virginal Southern Belle, her white outfit starkly contrasts the vibrancy of the primary colours worn by the rest of the cast; her jitters and hidden alcoholism make the bleak reality of her existence apparent.
While it was an overall entrancing performance, the second half really stole the show. The audience witness Blanche's tragic descent into madness, fuelled by Stanley’s relentless attacks. A particularly poignant moment was the climactic rape scene, arousing audible gasps from the audience as the stage walls disintegrated before the audience’s eyes to the gut-wrenching sounds of Blanche’s primal screams. A riveting show, the contemporary incorporations made some of Tennessee Williams’ core themes seem particularly resonant in light of current social issues today. There are parallels between Blanche's suffering under Kowalski and the recent calls to put an end to sexual violence towards women with the #metoo movement: both provide a recognition of the unfair exile from society suffered by those who are viewed as outsiders.