My first experience of Durham Student Theatre certainly didn’t disappoint. The Blizzard Theatre Company’s production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’ convincingly captured the central tension between conflict and craving; or as Blanche describes it – ‘brutal desire – just – Desire!’. The actors worked together to successfully convey one of the play’s chief concerns of doing whatever it takes to get what you want, whether that be Stanley’s need for dominance, Stella’s desperation to feel wanted or Blanche’s determination to escape her past and preserve her sense of worth and innocence.
The minimalist apartment set and subtle lighting changes meant the production ‘relied on its actors,’ as the Director notes in the programme, and fortunately the cast didn’t let us down. The ‘high-school-esque’ theatre space did not create any obvious limitations to the outstanding quality of the performance, but instead offered a more participatory experience for the audience. The actors’ use of the offstage space for entrances and exits as well as for the intimate moment between Stella and Stanley after he strikes her, intensified the audience’s voyeuristic position, and suggested our complicity in the use of sexual desire to excuse cruelty.
Jodie Sale’s performance of Blanche Dubois was dynamic, intelligent and all round impressive. Sale skilfully sustained the southern American accent and Blanche’s typically high-pitched, often hysterical tone of voice. Her increasingly agitated physicality, such as placing both palms on her face or holding her neck, effectively reflected her growing sense of distress and mental instability. Despite a slight lack of believability when Blanche tells her sister about how she lost the family estate, as Sale’s performance didn’t fully match Stella’s description of Blanche as ‘hysterical’, the actor dealt with the complexities of the character remarkably well. A particular moment of brilliance was when she told the story of her lover’s death. The raw emotion Sale expressed stood in contrast to Blanche’s typical eccentricity as Sale stood down-stage centre and directed her monologue to a fixed point above the audience. The anempathetic music of the Varsouviana Polka (the song that played when Blanche last saw her lover alive), accompanied her monologue, suggesting her inability to escape the past. The silence after the music suddenly cut out after she describes the ‘gunshot’ was chilling, allowing the audience to fully understand and sympathise with Blanche’s isolation for the first time.
I was equally impressed by Kit Redding’s performance as Stanley Kowalski. The ‘common’, brutish nature of the character was established on his first entrance, through to the very end, to the extent that Blanche’s assertion ‘there was something ape-like about him’ was not too far from the truth. What made Redding’s performance so effective was the erratic nature of his temper. The unpredictability and intensity of his outbursts were at points quite frightening, and this was key to the highly realistic depiction of Stanley’s physical abuse of Stella. A noteworthy moment was when Stanley fell to his knees and began wailing, begging for Stella to return, after he strikes her for the first time. This took place offstage right in front of the audience and red lighting served to reflect his recent anger and current suffering. I found this particularly powerful, as I was put in conflict with myself, debating whether Stanley deserved my sympathy or disgust. This was just one example of when the director’s staging and the actors’ delivery encouraged a reflection on the complexities of the human condition.
Giorgia Laird definitely did not fall short in her delivery of perhaps the most challenging role of Stella Kowalski. Although her accent was at points slightly less secure than the other leads, Laird’s performance left me both sympathetic and frustrated about her readiness to forgive. Laird successfully communicated Stella’s growing unease and even disdain towards Stanley’s ‘pig-like’ manners, but nevertheless could not overcome her desire to feel wanted by him. Laird’s display of love towards Blanche added another layer to the production, most vividly portrayed in the final scene in which Blanche is taken away by the doctor, as Stella watches on upstage in despair.
For such a well-known play, there is always a danger of falling short of its true potential. But this production rose to the challenge and provided a fantastic return to Durham Theatre. With the constant shifts in intensity, the sudden outbursts, intimate moments and comedic quirks I was engaged throughout, often holding conflicting emotions and opinions about the characters. This production did not dictate how I should feel, but rather invited deep reflection on why and what we desire.
Featured image: Blizzard Theatre Company with permission.