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A Streetcar Named Desire – A Review

A Streetcar Named Desire Review

We (my partner and I) saw La Boite’s 2016 production of Streetcar the night after opening, which I think is a better night to get a feel for a production. Opening night nerves have dissipated, which can sometimes throw out the rhythm of a show, and you’re left with the production that was devised and nurtured in the rehearsal room. It was also a ‘schools night’, so the theatre was packed with the dewy-faced adults of tomorrow, and what’s nice about that is you’re reminded of what it’s like to see the play for the first time, to hear afresh William’s language spoken aloud. It’s hard to overstate how much I love this play. It’s my favourite of Tennessee Williams’s play (although Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a heel-nipping second), and Williams is the playwright that burrows into my soul and mind like no other playwright, including—dare I say it?—the Bard. So that’s one disclaimer before I start my review of this production of Streetcar, or what I’d rather term a ‘collection of impressions and thoughts’. If you’re after a synopsis of the play go here.

The other is that I played Blanche three years ago, so anything I say here is coloured by my experience of being inside, not only the play, but inside Blanche. And once you’ve been inside Blanche, it’s hard to ever be objectively outside her, in the role of an impartial observer, watching someone else inhabit her. Let’s be clear this not a jealousy thing—though I’d give something vital and irretrievable to play the role again—but rather a strange sense of permeability, of moving inside and outside of the character as you watch someone else play her. Being objectively conscious of the choices she (Carter) made, in both a general character sense, and on a line-by-line level (in comparison to your own), but also feeling yourself exposed and vulnerable with her out in the open on stage, rather than in the safe, dark space of the audience.

So on that note, let’s get one thing out of the way: Bridie Carter was an excellent Blanche. She in fact carried what was otherwise, on the whole, a middling production of Streetcar. But more on that later—let me wax lyrical about Carter for a moment. She made expressive, bold physical choices that played well to an audience in the round. She was forceful, cajoling, viperish, snarky, and charming when it suited her, and eminently watchable. In this regard, you could see her training as an actor at work, with only the occasional moments that felt broadcasted for the audience’s sake (usually in one of Blanche’s extended diatribes), rather than for, or in response to, the actor on stage with her. What I loved most about her Blanche, however, was the bravado she brought to the character, and that bravado worked very well in the first half. When I said as much to my partner at intermission (after Scene 6), he agreed but said you weren’t getting much of a sense of her vulnerability either. There were glimpses of the vulnerability underneath, but (as I also said to my partner) it’s in the second half that Blanche’s emotional fragility needs to come to the fore, and perhaps that’s what Carter was building towards: the ‘bravado’ gradually being stripped away.

So did we see the undoing of ‘Bravado Blanche’ in the second half? I’m going to go with a wishy-washy ‘yes and no’. Scenes 9 and 10 are where we witness Blanche’s breakdown. These scenes are a source of anxiety for any actress playing them because they are so easily done badly. That’s when the rehearsal process and an actor’s training and instincts really have to shift up a gear, and for Carter’s rendering of these scenes those things did back her up… but, there was also something missing, and I’m going to say that something was the vulnerability. The tipping into madness, losing grip on reality, Carter believably did all that, but I was never convinced we were seeing Carter stripped bear, exposing herself in that desperate, raw, fragile, flayed back way that Blanche becomes in those scenes. The bravado was still there, as was a sense of performance of those things, rather than actually doing them for real. She held something back, which may have been her choice, or maybe she just didn’t or couldn’t go there that night (which happens). Blanche has the potential to wreck havoc with the psyche if you let her (Exhibit A: Vivien Leigh), but I’ll say, also, what didn’t work about those scenes wasn’t really Carter’s fault. But more on that further down.

First up, let’s get the ‘accents’ out of the way. They’re usually the first thing audience members and reviewers alike comment on because they’re the easiest thing to pinpoint as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ about an actor’s performance. Much like the multiracial casting (will also get to that), the accents were a bag of liquorice all-sorts. Only Carter maintained a flawless Southern accent from ‘They told me to take a streetcar named Desire…’ to—with many, many, many lines in between—‘I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers’. Her accent was impeccable, and you could hear and understand every word she said. The rest of the cast was not so praiseworthy. Trevor McMahon as Stanley seemed to be trying for a standard American, but it mostly sounded like some weird, garbled American-Australian hybrid. This was most excruciatingly evident when Stanley declares ‘and I’m a proud American’ with a fistful of flat Aussie vowels. Ngoc Phan as Stella used a southern accent, but there was never any sense of conviction about it (much like a lot of her performance), though it was passable. Colin Smith (Mitch), it seemed, made the sensible choice to use a standard American accent, rather than a distinctly southern one, but it lacked consistency. Then there was Eunice (Parmis Rose – a friend of daughter’s, incidentally), who channelled Estelle Costanza for an all out assault with a Brooklyn accent. In fairness though, Rose is not a trained actor and was primarily there for her skills as a keyboardist. Alexander Forero (in a strange role-switch situation with the minor character of Pablo) used his natural Colombian accent, though perhaps heightened for effect, to give Steve (Eunice’s husband) a ‘south of the border’ flavour, which actually worked well. Overall, bad and mediocre accents are forgivable in amateur productions, not so much in so called professional theatre, particularly when they apparently had an accent and dialect coach (Melissa Agnew — who I had as a voice teacher at QUT and does know her stuff).

But it wasn’t the dodgy accents alone that left me feeling this production was just ‘less’ than it should have been. As a whole it was underwhelming, particularly the second half, though whether this was due to the acting—which really boils down to casting—or the direction is harder to say. As Blanche’s counterpoint, Stanley has to match her in intensity every step of the way. McMahon got off to a decent start, and he looks the part (even with the out-of-period long hair), but in the second half he failed to convince. His menace, such as it was, lacked any real sense of danger, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the ‘rape scene’ was awkwardly staged. Vilma Mattila, the set designer, did the director and the actors no favours by putting a bedframe on the end of the bed, as opposed to just having a bedhead (the rest of her design though was topnotch). Jimmy Stewart was originally meant to play Stanley but was replaced by McMahon a few months out (probably for reasons related to Stewart’s Home and Away commitments). I’m no doubt in the minority when I say I wasn’t disappointed by Stewart’s no-show as Stanley—I can’t say I’m a fan—which is probably why I wanted McMahon to be better than he was. However, it was nice to see him do something other than Bert, the earnest and eager-to-please working-class everyman, in the Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries series. My main gripe about his Stanley though was the utter lack of sexual chemistry between him and Ngoc Phan’s Stella.

So, Stella. How do I word this without #racist being applied? I’m not against multiracial casting at all, and I understand why ‘colour blind’ casting is a thing, and fully support why it is a thing. Given me a Somalian or a Kurdish Afghan Juliet any day. So the only thing I’ll say here is that even in the universe called ‘the magic of theatre’ it’s a big sell to make us believe Ngoc Phan and Bridie Carter are sisters with the same biological parents (of the French-extracted landed Southern-gentry type, no less). When it comes to Williams, I suppose I’m a purist, probably more than I care to admit (which also applies to messing with time and place when staging his plays). So now that’s been said, I want to make it clear that it wasn’t Ngoc Phan’s unmistakable Asian-ness that made me think she just wasn’t that great as Stella. She was by no means awful. She delivered a competent and on-point performance, but it never rose above that. There would be half dozen actresses in Brisbane alone who could have done a lot more with a gift horse like Stella. I know this because I’ve seen a few of them, including Anna McGahan (in her final year at QUT) and the Stella I played opposite (VCA-trained Lia Davis) who owned the role like a bitch. Again I come back to the lack of chemistry between McMahon and Phan, which basically had to be manufactured through some slow-motion choreography after the big STELLA!!! moment. Other than that they were about as hot for each other as a chicken thigh and a banana in the same freezer.

And Mitch? This is tricky because I know Colin Smith and went to uni with him sometime last century. And I like him. He’s a good guy, and he’s been doing some killer work with the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble in recent years. Mitch is a wet blanket of a role and it can be hard to transcend that as an actor. Smith did okay, again he certainly wasn’t awful, and he captured the tenderness of Mitch nicely, but some of his choices felt a bit off key, and he just never looked very comfortable being uncomfortable, as Mitch is a lot of the time. Mitch’s climax in Scene 9 in the lead up to and when he attempts to force himself on Blanche—through either bad stage direction (blocking), under rehearsal, or just ‘safe’ choices—was clumsily executed and frankly a bit of a mess. It’s the one opportunity an actor playing Mitch really has to dig in and fire up and on this occasion it was largely tossed away. Like the rape scene, however, I wonder if the problem with this scene was more directorial.

The minor roles suffer from the fact that all the actors, bar Alexander Ferero as Steve (and the flower seller), were cast as musicians/singers first, then actors. I understand the logic behind this (saving money), but you never quite took them seriously: they stepped into the play to deliver their lines then stepped out again, though Rose’s Brooklyn-accented Eunice did provide some well-timed comic relief alongside Ferero’s flamboyant Mexicano Steve.

The live music, however, brought to you by the ‘rest of the cast’, was the thing that elevated this production (literally and figuratively) into something approximating professional theatre. The musical trio—Parmis Ross (keyboardist and Eunice); Guy Webster (sound design, composer, guitarist, plus Pablo, the Doctor and the Young Man); and Kristal West (vocals, plus Nurse and Woman)—were situated on an upper stage, reached by a set of stairs. This was also the ‘upstairs’ where Eunice and Steve live. West’s (a finalist on The Voice) moody, sometimes-New Orleans’s-inspired vocals (I did love her rendition of Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’), were a bit of a treat and a worthy distraction between (sometimes longish) scene changes, even if they didn’t add much to the action on stage.

The set design, on that note, also deserves an honorable mention. What Mattila achieved, by elevating the small apartment space (as connected raked platforms) from the floor of the theatre, was a feeling of claustrophobia–an essential dynamic for the play–and instability: a kind a spatial foreshadowing of Blanche’s gradual loss of footing in reality. It was a sparse set: a bed, bedside table, bench (meant as Blanche’s ‘fold-out bed’), a table with four chairs/stools, and a small drinks caddy, but it forced the actors to work hard to ‘fill the space’, as it were. Having the bathroom on the opposite side next to the kitchen (essentially off stage beneath the stairs to Eunice and Steve’s apartment), rather than off the bedroom, created some logistical problems staging-wise, which, in turn, generated some moments of suspended disbelief for the audience. It got awkward at times. Ben Hughes’s lighting design was understated, suitably atmospheric–probably the only production element that really evoked the sultriness of the New Orlean’s setting–and the perfect complement to the set design.

One thing, and this is a credit to the actors and the director Todd MacDonald, that did impress was the pacing. The show never flagged; it ticked over at a consistently good clock, which for a play of around two and a half hours (11 scenes), minus the interval, is vital. It’s an easy play to let drag (said with the admission that I’ve been guilty of doing exactly that). What the actors hadn’t yet accommodated though was the audience’s laughter, but it was only second night.

I’ll finish by saying this production of Streetcar is worth seeing for Carter’s performance as Blanche—she really is very good—but without her (and West’s singing), there’s not a lot to rave about on the overall. It’s decent, but not great. Judging by most other reviews out there, however, I’m one of the few not enamoured by this particular production of ‘the greatest American play of all time’ (I think it’s a Brisbane thing — we’re too easily pleased). Cameron Pegg from The Australian seems to be the only reviewer who saw the same play I did : ‘Like its set, this production is a jumble of parts, performances and ideas that do not quite fit together.’ With this, I concur.