Monday, 10 April 2017

Theatre review: Streetcar Named Desire

The Epic Fornications of Belle Reve
"There are thousands of papers, stretching back over hundreds of years, affecting Belle Reve as, piece by piece, our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications—to put it plainly! . . . The four-letter word deprived us of our plantation, till finally all that was left—and Stella can verify that!—was the house itself and about twenty acres of ground, including a graveyard, to which now all but Stella and I have retreated."

This was Blanche Dubois' elegy  of her ancestors to her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski. It succinctly explains the end of an era for the American  Deep South, and hints portentously that the fall of any civilisation is linked to tolerating low standards of sexual morality.

Hearing such a speech in the 21st century, perhaps no reasonably informed denizen of the West can resist the urge to look uneasily over one's shoulder, so to speak, and asking "Isn't that us, too?"

Who can get away with sexual impropriety in indefinitely? Not the likes of Blanche Dubois whose past caught up with her. 

She only washed up to the doorstep of her sister Stella and brother in law Stan because she was run out of her hometown for reasons of sexual immorality. 

For those who know the play, Blanche Dubois is possibly the worst house guest in the world. Penniless and knowing her salvation to be marriage, Blanche failed to assume a manner more befitting her fallen station in life, constantly abusing the hospitality of Stan her brother in law whom she considered too common for her sister Stella, even as she insulted him in his own home both to his face and behind his back as well as having frequent hot baths at his expense and guzzling his booze.   

It is precisely Blanche's station in life that is at issue. She is from the Southern aristocracy of plantation owners fallen on hard times, for the estate her family owned had to be sold to pay for generations of accumulated debt.   Denial is a feminine vice and Blanche Dubois exemplifies denial – the eighth deadly sin - in all its folly. What does she deny? Her fallen status, her being in receipt of the hospitality of a man whose manners and class she despises and her inability to comport herself accordingly, because she still believes herself to be better than him by reason of her birth alone.

Blanche married an unstable and apparently penniless poet who was also homosexual when she was 16. When confronted by her about his homosexuality after catching him in bed with an older man, blowing his brains out by shooting himself in the mouth was his response. Clearly, Blanche's parents and family were not fully in charge of matters enough to arrange a good match for her. No mention was made of her absent father, but she was known to meet soldiers from a nearby camp on her lawn when they called for her while her deaf mother slept.

Having such a past would have tainted her marriage prospects, and this she exacerbated by taking to drink and living in a hotel of ill-repute.  Still harbouring ideas above her now fallen station, she continually insults her sister for making do with a Polack of a factory worker while antagonising him even as she enjoyed his reluctant hospitality, depriving him and his wife of their privacy they used to enjoy when they could make love without worrying about a third occupant hearing them do so.

If she had not been so intent on antagonising him with her airs and graces or hogged his bathroom whenever he wanted to use it, he might not have been quite so anxious to get rid of her or spoil her chances of marriage with so much relish. As it was, male solidarity dictated that he had to inform his friend , co-worker and comrade in arms Mitch of her sordid past to prevent him from winding up marrying an alcoholic slut with mental health issues.

This seems fair enough, but he did rape her. Was she perhaps "asking for it" subconsciously? Compulsive flirt that she was, she did ask him to do up her dress as early as in Scene 2 and clearly saw him as a potential for "a bit of rough".

Earlier in the evening the rape took place, Blanche had repelled Mitch's advances by shouting "Fire!" when he became too insistent on enjoying her sexual favours despite declaring his intention not to marry her. Presumably she could have done the same thing when she saw Stan was about to rape her, but it seems she did not protest . We may therefore reasonably speculate that her show of a struggle was perhaps meant more to arouse him further than to prevent herself from being raped.

If she had wanted to stay on with the Kowalskis, she could have made herself pleasant and helpful to Stella when she came back from the hospital with the baby, but instead, she complained that her husband had raped her.

Presumably a rape victim who wanted the perpetrator punished for rape would have gone straight to the police, not merely complained to his wife and expected ... what? What are you expected to do if your elder sister complains to you that your husband had raped her? You’d have to call the police yourself, wouldn’t you, if you took the accusation seriously. Disbelief, anger and the withdrawal of the hospitality you have extended to your trouble-making nuisance of a sister would have been the most predictable reaction and consequence. 

Stan does not make Blanche move out the following Tuesday using her one-way ticket back to Laurel that he himself had bought her as birthday  present, though this was what he asked her to do originally. Indeed, he even allowed her to stay a few weeks more, which was generous of him, considering she was also accusing him of rape when previously she was only complaining about him resembling  an ape.

That there was a  card game in session as  Blanche is escorted off the premises perfectly illustrates the fact that life goes on even as we go mad after having destroyed ourselves as a result of having too many ill-chosen sex partners.

The roles were played with conviction by the cast. The young collector Blanche kissed on the mouth was particularly handsome, I couldn’t help noticing. What is it with older woman who want to seduce much younger men?  That they are easy prey? They are bound to be grateful? No one will sympathise with them if they complain of sexual assault? Blanche was repeating a pattern of behaviour when she tried to seduce or sexually assaulted him, for she had her employment as a teacher ended when she was discovered to be having an affair with a 17 year old schoolboy. 

Because of my willing suspension of disbelief,  I tend to forget the actors are acting unless there is something particularly striking about the role or the appearance and demeanour of the actor. The haircut of Nick Carter did not strike me as the kind of haircut Stanley Kowalski would have had and I suspect Stan would not be obviously overweight either, though he would be  tall, big, burly and apelike.  His movements would be slower and more deliberate than Nick Carter’s - who I noticed had a tendency to move his arms too quickly - to convey the required stillness and menace of a reasoning human ape.  The Stan in my mind’s eye would not be overweight either.

Maddie Penfold was too slight to play the matron come to take Blanche away to the loony bin and what she wore oddly inappropriate. I remember her in a black cocktail dress drunkenly in another role at the beginning but forget what she said now or who she was meant to be. One of the minor characters included a negro woman, but Penfold is blond.

Dan Thomassen’s accent was RP though he acted well, but probably because the others did their American accents so well.  He was perhaps too graceful and well-formed a young man  to play the awkward clod I imagined Mitch to be.  To play Mitch well, I think he would have to be actually repulsive to Blanche, to bring home the horror of her fallen status in life: the lady of the castle forced to consider marrying a sweaty serf.

Beth Mabin cannot be faulted in the way she played Stella, and certainly not her mastery of the movements of a heavily pregnant woman.

Rebecca Lewis was utterly convincing and the enthusiastic comments of others fortunate enough to see her perform at the sold out performances are enough to convey her talent and promise as an actress in this very demanding role. The best moment for me was the “broom moment” in Scene 4, after she grabbed it away it away from Stella when she was cleaning up the mess after Stan's tantrum. 

This scene was omitted in the  film with Vivian Leigh, Rebecca Lewis made it completely her own. 

A Streetcar Named "Family Bashing"

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