A Streetcar Named Desire – Lyric Theatre – Review by Cathy Brown
Produced by the Lyric Theatre
04 May – 08 June
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams is an iconic and dense play, carrying with it almost as much baggage as its conflicted and conflicting characters.
In its pitting of refinement against violence and passion against propriety, it is a play that can often eschew subtlety. However, this new production from the Lyric Theatre Belfast skillfully reins in the melodrama to create a very human portrait of lonely, complicated lives.
Emma Jordan’s focused production is not set in the modern day, but has, at its core, modern day sensibilities. Here is a world of male domination, where women have little or no agency and where the victims of sexual violence are spurned rather than protected.
Ciaran Bagnall’s bleached out two-story set, beautifully fills the Lyric stage with a broken down simplicity that strips Streetcar back to the bone, a thoughtful translation of Stanley and Stella’s shabby apartment. Carl Kennedy’s musical score includes more contemporary sounds, yet Enda Kennedy’s on point costumes keep us firmly in the 1950s. The set is enlivened with accents of red – throws, lanterns, trousers – small sparks of the desire that so drives the play’s protagonists. The soft elegance we associate with Williams is nowhere to be seen, this is a production for the #MeToo era.
Blanche Du Bois is usually played by an older woman, but here Jordan sticks to the script and presents Blanche as a 30-year old woman. It is a risk that just about pays off. Aoibhéann McCann initially seems too young for Blanche’s tics and mannerisms – the need for soft light, the lying about her age – these quirks seem even more disingenuous coming from a younger woman, yet in some ways that makes Blanche all the more tragic. McCann gives the part her all and is heartbreaking in the final scenes, but the performance requires a more subtle trajectory from the beginning.
It seems like an unlikely feminist text, but Streetcar does have a sharp understanding of how society values women according to youth and beauty. It is easy then to understand why Blanche’s obsession with how she looks, should tip from personal quirk to life-threatening crisis. “People don’t see you — men don’t — don’t even admit your existence unless they’re making love to you,” she says to Stella. “And you’ve got to have your existence admitted by someone.”
Meghan Tyler as Stella is a woman tragically torn between her husband and her sister. She can understand Blanche’s misgivings about Stanley, she is not blind to them, but the audience is left in no doubt leave that it is in part her husband’s violence that attracts her. This is a complicated view in this day and age but it is to the credit of the production that the issue is not shirked.
In some ways this is as much Stella’s tragedy as it is Blanche’s – she will remain as trapped as her sister will. Her upstairs neighbours Eunice and Steve, thoughtfully played by Abigail McKibbon and Sean Kearns, act as a kind of premonition of the life that awaits her.
This is not a production to judge or to take sides. There is no mistaking the central role of Blanche in the audience’s sympathies but it is just as easy to dislike her, as it is to identify with her. Stanley’s brutality is often viewed through the prism of sexual attraction, particularly in Elia Kazan’s iconic film, but here Mark Huberman’s Stanley is less brooding and more bullying as he prowls about the stage, constantly watching how events unfold, his violence just barely hiding below the surface.
Like Blanche, Stanley is lying to himself – the ‘king’ who cannot articulate the impact of the pain he has witnessed, expressing it instead through his inarticulate rage and his fists. Blanche meanwhile does nothing but articulate, spinning shimmering webs of half-truths and lies to avoid the harsh bright light of reality.
Part of the genius of A Streetcar Named Desire is that while everyone is lying to themselves, everyone also uncovers some truths. Seamus O’Hara, in an outstanding performance as Mitch, is the warm heart of this production, providing exactly the right balance between natural charm and painful defeat and the only character, you feel, that really knows who he truly is.
A Streetcar Named Desire is not for the faint-hearted theatregoer coming in as it does at over the three-hour mark. It has some underpowered moments, but still offers an intense production with an unsettling bite, full of awareness of the unresolved gender tensions that still spark debate today – issues of patriarchy, agency and a continuing failure to support, or believe victims of abuse. A vital and timely production.