Rapture's A Streetcar Named Desire, Theatre Royal, Glasgow.

8 September 2017

I decided to try and blog every day this month, with a Scottish theme running to each post. I must be doing well because this, by my calculations, is my ninth post in eight days. And it’s fitting in with my Scottish theme because I’m reviewing Rapture Theatre Co.’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and Rapture describe themselves as Scotland’s premiere touring theatre company.

If you remember I loved their version of ‘Who’s Afraid ofVirginia Woolf?’ To quote myself, of that I said ‘This play was 3 and a half hours of exploration into relationships with the self and with others. Into identities and how we perceive and are perceived. Into surface and depth.  Into truth and confrontation of truth and avoidance of truth.’

This was more of the same – and, as I did with Woolf, I’ve booked to see it again.

With Woolf I out and out loved the play, I thought it was mesmerising – pure theatrical poetry and I had high hopes for Streetcar as Michael Emans was directing again and I felt his dedication to Woolf would carry through. It definitely did, the company always begins by really analysing and deconstructing the texts – every line has a meaning and a purpose.

Speaking to Creative Scotland Rapture say of the play: ‘It draws on deep human emotions fearlessly, and confronts us with truths we are more comfortable avoiding. We genuinely care about these characters because of their complexity – none is either all good or all bad. We recognise their human fragility and relate to them more strongly because of that.’

I would have to argue that the portrayal of Stanley didn’t tie to that for me – I didn’t see him as complex, he seemed like a one dimensional bully in this production for me. 

Which was something I had to really sit and think about because Stanley, in this play, is played by a black actor.

Prior to going to see the play I had read Brian Beamon’s piece in The Herald about how he couldn’t see how the characters of Stanley, Eunice or Mitch could be black. Beacom says ‘Kowalski was created in 1947 to be a Polish immigrant, and as such his race and class informed his status, his attitudes to life and women. Tennessee Williams’ play is allegorical, a reflection on a layered, Deep South American society, a world of stark segregation in which a black man would not be allowed to live in an apartment block with a white woman, and certainly not a house owned by a woman of colour.’

I disagreed with Beacom’s notions straight away. Yes, this play is set in a time of deep racial segregation – but where we are now in society is in a place where (for the most part, I hope) the tensions have given way and it would not be strange in most parts of the world to see a black man and a white woman as a married couple. However, as the black lives matter movement has proven – although we’re not where we were, racial tensions still exist and having that mix of black and white actors really emphasised the differences in the white privilege, plantation world which Stella and Blanche came from and the new world, which Stella was entering and Blanche wasn’t quite able to.
I was questioning myself – had I fallen victim to the Taylor and Kanye version of Blanche and Stanley – was I against Stanley and in favour of Blanche because I was white and I was connecting to the white frailty trope? Because I do ultimately agree with Munroe Bergdorf that all white people are racist, and I try to be aware of that. Blanche, played by Gina Isaac, is frail. There is a lot of frailty present on that stage, but ultimately I don’t think it was because she was white. I think it was down to how carefully considered and directed Isaac’s performance was.

Blanche is often presented as extreme, as a bit mad. But in this performance my heart bled for her. Her breakdown is always tragic, regardless of who plays her, but, having struggled with my own mental health issues (which I talked about hereI felt in this production I really got a sense of the circumstances that had led Blanche to end up where she was, and that it wouldn't be all too difficult for anyone who struggles mentally to go through what she has been through and not end up like her. Isaac’s says in this interview ‘This is a play about people who happen to be the position they’re in. She’s part of the old aristocracy, part of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. And this clashes with the new world and the vibrancy of New Orleans.’ 

I got the truest sense of the world that she had lost, and I think that’s where any hope I had of seeing Stanley’s point of view in this play went out the window – he was all ‘Napoleonic Code’ and I was all ‘Can you get a grip of yourself and see what this poor woman has lost?’ I couldn’t for a minute think of him as being anything other than a completely selfish a**hole.

And that’s not to say the actor gave a bad performance, but Stanley is more intelligent, in the play only he and Blanche rival each other for their ability to perceive and see the truth that others can’t – it’s what drives her to retreat into her mind and life in a fantasy where everything is better, because she sees the stark reality of the world and her lack of place in it – and he saw it and abused it. He is violent and abusive towards Mitch, Stella & Blanche in the play, and none of them are easy to watch, btu in particular, in the scene where Blanche and Stanley have that ‘date [they’ve] had with each other from the beginning’ it comes across as out and out rape. Which it is always is, but with Brando’s iconic performance in mind there’s been a sexuality and erotica assigned to the character of Stanley – which is completely stripped away in this. We see him, not Brando. So in fact, it can be argued, that Joseph Black gave a phenomenal performance – this Stanley was his own, I just couldn’t see the multi-dimension I saw in other characters, and it wasn't anything to do with his ethnicity. 

Sex is Blanche’s only weapon, and it’s been abused so many times by the time we meet her that seeing it turned against her in a violent way was chilling. And that’s I think where all my sympathy for Blanche came from – her world was gone, she was scared of the world she’d found herself in and she was weaponless bar sex – and when she did use it she was persecuted for it. Yes, she abused her position as a teacher, but it was all she knew how to do.
This play may have been produced in 1947 but the themes are relevant – alcohol dependency, sexism, misogyny, domestic violence and mental health.

This may not have been the most concise review of the play – because I’m still processing it, I’m still making my mind up on it. Two days later I can’t work out how I felt about bits of it, and I’m looking forward to that second viewing to try and work that out. That Rapture, in Eman’s capable hands, have taken a play I know so well and made it something I’m still thinking about, is a marvel. Once again, this is theatre poetry – and I’ve had that first reading where I’m swept up in emotion and my experience is still too raw to process. I’m seeing it again, and maybe then I’ll be able to be more analytical. If you’ve been thinking about booking this – I highly recommend you do. But just don’t expect to hear the rumble of that same old streetcar you’re familiar with. 

Streetcar runs at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow till Saturday 9th September, then tours various Scottish locations until it finished in Edinburgh 3rd-7th October. Check dates and venues here

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