Iconic, powerful and heartbreaking are words I would use to describe Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire. The version that I saw on Thursday evening, directed by Anna Seacombe and Harry Lukakis at the Keble O’Reilly, fits the bill perfectly. I attended a very full opening night performance, which was intense, full of sexual tension and drama which it managed to maintain across its three hour length. Such a long running time necessitates that every scene is really tight, so that they audience doesn’t flag. The cast and crew of A Streetcar Named Desire were largely very successful at this task and I was captivated throughout.
The play opened with some classic New Orleans’ jazz to get the audience in the mood. The jazz was a motif throughout, actively situating the events in a certain time and place. The music selection was excellent, but I did feel that it was a shame that none of it was live. Given the amount of jazz outfits in Oxford, a bit of live sizzle wouldn’t have been hard to come by. The opening scene was a little tentative, accents not quite as confident as I had seen in the rehearsal, but it was the opening night after all. As the play went on, the actors all started to really come into their own. I felt that the ‘whole cast’ scenes were particularly effective, particularly the poker game. In this scene, Stanley and his buddies have a poker party but things turn violent and Stanley ends up beats his wife Stella. This is the scene that leads to that iconic scream which has imprinted Marlon Brando into popular culture forever. Stanley, played by Jason Imlach does a pretty good job, he aint no Marlon Brando, but the effect was powerful nonetheless.
At this point, it’s probably worth highlighting the stellar performances of the two sisters. Blanche and Stella were played by Mary Higgins and Madeleine Walker respectively. Both characters have their own traps for an actor to fall into. Blanche can very easily be overcooked into one dimension hysteria, underplaying the complex and very lucid side to her character. The character of Stella can easily be overpowered by Blanche. Fortunately, the actors avoid this, and both characters are powerful, nuanced presences on the stage. Their accents were also particularly strong, compared to other members of the cast. They both employed a deep southern Louisiana drawl, whereas the rest of cast had a New Orleans ‘yat’ accent.
The staging itself was something I discussed in depth with Anna and Harry when I went to one of their rehearsals to write a preview. They drew my attention to Tennessee Williams’ concept of plastic theatre, the idea that everything on the stage has been meaningfully chosen. This was definitely very true of the staging choices. The costumes were strong, seeming historically accurate and also reflecting the personalities of the characters that they depicted. The blankness of the male costumes were contrasted with the vivacity and detail of the female costumes. This reflects the gender relations of the time, the commodification of women, but also firmly situates the female characters at the heart of the play. A minor complaint I would have with the staging is that the scene changes were slightly jarring, there was no time allowed for a pregnant moment of tension at the end of each scene – it was all a little too efficient.
All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and well put together performance which I can highly recommend.