A Streetcar Named Desire written by Tennessee Williams is an iconic piece of 20th Century American theatre. Streetcar tells the story of Blanche Dubois who loses her home and is forced to leave Mississippi and goes to stay with her sister Stella and Stella’s husband Stanley Kowalski. Blanche is horrified by New Orleans, Stella’s living conditions, and most of all, she is horrified by Stella’s husband Stanley. He and Blanche occupy different and opposed worlds and their inability to understand one another has tragic consequences. It is a dark play that tackles enduring issues of loneliness, sexual violence, mental health and class. It’s a text that, like the plays of Shakespeare (the directors’ other choice) crops up at GCSE and A Level. However, despite how well known it is, A Streetcar Named Desire is rarely staged, perhaps because it is so difficult to convey the richness and complexity of the text. Directors Anna Seacombe and Harry Lukakis take on this ambitious project and bring it to us at the Keble O’Reilly this week.
The first scene opens with some sizzling jazz, immediately transporting us to New Orleans despite the drab surroundings of the Wadham rehearsal room. From Blanche’s arrival on stage, I was immediately struck by the quality of the acting. Even in comparison to other good student productions, Streetcar raises the bar. The three main characters are all very easy to over act. These roles could easily be type-cast, and fall into the trap of hyperbole. However, the actors avoided being one dimensional, and came across as remarkably complex and human, a testament both to the power of Williams’ script and the quality of acting. The benefit of sitting in on a rehearsal is that you get to see how different the actors are when they are performing, and when they’re not. Yesterday, even without the set around them, the actors displayed an ability to transform themselves out of recognition.
A key part of this transformation was the accents. Generally, they were spot on. This is another mark of Anna and Harry’s meticulousness. They extensively researched accents, holding numerous accent workshops to make the accents an asset, rather than a weakness of the production. They have made sure that both Blanche and Stella Southern drawl is markedly different to the New Orleans ‘yat’ accent of the rest of the characters. Particularly in the case of Blanche, performed by Mary Higgins, I was genuinely surprised how authentic the southern accent actually could be.
After watching a few scenes, I chatted to the directors about their experience staging the play so far. The first thing that they were both very keen to mention was that they are not staging the film, and in fact expressly asked their cast to steer away from the film at all costs. They’ve stuck true to the script, even trying to keep as close as possible to Williams’ detailed, page length stage directions – not a mean feat. The skeleton set which they were using was precise down to the inch. This is more than just meticulous organisation on the part of the directors but is part of their emphasis on plastic theatre, a term coined by Tennessee Williams. Plastic theatre uses the set for symbolic purposes, every prop, piece of music, is chosen carefully to represent the intangible. The attention to detail and the grounding in Tennessee Williams’ own theory of theatre demonstrates the depth of the directors’ understanding of the play.
The production is well thought through, the staging perceptive, and the calibre of acting very high, this play will no doubt be a highlight of the term. I can highly recommend it.