TENNESSEE Williams’ 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire is set in one of New Orleans’ many run-down housing districts, where Stella DuBois and her husband Stanley Kowalski rent a cramped apartment from its owner, who lives upstairs.
The action starts when older sister Blanche turns up in New Orleans, travelling on the streetcar whose destination is Desire (an area of the city.) It’s a world away from the hinted grandeur of Stella’s family home, Belle Reve, 150 miles north in Laurel, Mississippi.
Blanche’s history is embroidered and obfuscated and even her sister doesn’t know the truth. But the angry Stanley, his territory and authority threatened, goes out of his way to find out anything bad about his sister-in-law.
The pregnant Stella is accustomed to a life of drunken beatings and floridly sexy reconciliations, and her sister’s pretentious refinement is almost as disturbing as her presence in the two-roomed accommodation.
Blanche sees an escape in the arms of one of Stanley’s friends, the gentle and unmarried Mitch, but Stanley won’t stand for his army buddy getting duped.
As in so many Williams’ plays, the spectre of homosexuality lurks in the background, all references to which were cut from the Oscar-winning film.
The heart of the play is a clash of wills, sometimes mirrored by a powerful physical reaction. In the film, the attraction/ repulsion between Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brandon was the fulcrum. In Tamsin Jacson’s production for Studio Theatre in Salisbury, Sam Luckman’s Blanche and Terry D’Onofrio’s Stanley have all the hostility and disdain, but their conflict is based on physical and emotional strength rather than sexual chemistry.
Here is a needy, manipulative and proud woman who feels that her sister’s husband is an inferior being, and treats him accordingly. He is streetwise and very strong, slyly accumulating evidence of Blanche’s true life in Laurel.
Stew Taylor gives another mesmerising and multi-layered performance as Mitch, with Laura Melville as Stella, a woman who has found her own balance within her marriage.
The production brings the audience into the sultry heat of New Orleans before the “curtain” goes up, the stage cleverly set by designer Colin Hayman and his team, accompanied by music specially composed by Dorset musician Rupert Egerton-Smith.
The play is a lastingly relevant look at power balances, at truth and at false witness, and it ends in the violence and isolation which are the only possible conclusions.
I’m not certain that the briefly-mentioned updating (Iraq rather than the WW2 of the original play or Korean war of the film) adds to the story, though it does explain the wheelie suitcase and the push-button phone.
The Studio Theatre company gives powerful and chilling performances, bringing Williams’s characters to often frightening life. It continues until Saturday.