‘What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh no, it’s curved like a road through mountains’. The seemingly casual quote is but a small taste of Tennessee Williams’ astute insight into the realities of the human condition.
Williams is alluded to as one of the most influential American playwrights due to numerous factors – his skilful blend of paratactic and poetic dialogue, his sharp capture of colloquial culture, his sentimental yet deeply ruthless portrayal of class, loss, and individual identity – but all this can be boiled down to a single idea: Tennessee Williams’ vision of realism has revolutionised theatre.
And A Streetcar Named Desire was not only his magnum opus, but a flagship that marked the beginning of a pivotal social disclosure, which originated onstage.
In the forcefully up-beat post-WWII contemporary theatre, thoroughly dominated by musical comedy and slapstick, the 1947 premiere of Streetcar was akin to a cold hose-spray for the public. The depth and pertinent reality of the issues portrayed and explored, such as gender, race, sexuality, superiority, promiscuity, vices, denial; in short – life, thoroughly unmasked the dazed audience, and gave them a firm slap of lucidity.
The play’s timeless, disarming cocktail of morality and symbolism aside, it has also granted us the glorious tug of war between, what has become, two of the most referenced characters in modern theatrical history – Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski.
Representing polar-opposite corners of almost every kind – she is acting and he is honest, she is ethereal where he is a brute, she is manipulative where he is straightforward, she a Southern belle and he a Polish working class immigrant – they are, in short – fire and water.
However, Williams’ characterisation is naturally not two-dimensional, and the two characters are also seen united in two crucial aspects: their love of Stella, and their relentless will to fight for their respective truths.
To sum up, it is a diamond of a script – multifaceted in its interplay of unity and difference, acceptance of oneself and judgement of others’ failures, of fragility and force, and the fantastic dance between dignity and necessity. It is therefore both a gem and a substantial burden of responsibility for any director to pick up.
There have been numerous interpretive adaptations of the script over the years, where the directors attempted to imbue their own visions into Williams’ ambiguous writing, to varying degrees of success. I’m elated to report that Michael Emans’ production of Streetcar that appeared at Macrobert September 13, courtesy of the Rapture Theatre troupe, was a memorable thrill.
Following in the wake of the acclaimed success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which appeared at Macrobert earlier this year, Rapture Theatre’s eclectic, modest cast of ten brought a wrenching journey and razor-sharp directorial vision to the stage.
Leading the production was Gina Isaac as Blanche DuBois, and the porcelain character she created was delicious. A vain, criticizing Blanche gradually cracked into a delicate, desperate china doll as Isaac discarded layer after layer of pretense off the character like a set of Matryoshkas. Her fragility and cunning, her graceful motions and charming wardrobe all portrayed a wounded, proud woman from a very different time, at the end of her rope.
To meet this delicate, bamboo-like creature head-on, came Joseph Black as Stanley. The brutish simplicity of a working-class character was further accentuated by Black’s towering frame, as he literally and figuratively looked down at Blanche from the get-go.
The chemistry between Isaac and Black was one to make ol’ Williams proud – their attraction ebbed and flowed with their mutual animosity as they battled for space and superiority, and the ambiguity of their flirting made the violent climax of the play a more potent burn.
A particularly interesting nuance in the final scene of the production saw an anxious, pacing Stanley akin to a caged animal, as Blanche is being carried away by the nurses. Whereas in the original script, Stanley is seen continuing to play cards, unperturbed as his sister-in-law is being dragged out, director Micahel Emans opted to portray a more ambivalent Stanley, one not fully heartless, one who is even remorseful, perhaps. Which added a bittersweet angle to the aggressive nature of the character.
Joining the fiery duo were Julia Taudevin as the contending Stella, and Kazeen Tosin Amore as the innocuous Mitch. Taudevin delivered a tumultuous performance fitting for a character who is placed at such drastic crossroads, also portraying the intimacy and carnal attraction between Stella and Stanley in a moving and self-assured way.
Amore’s performance as the chaste, last-resort Mitch was heartfelt and at stark odds with Joseph Black’s aggressive, intimidating advances at Blanche, further accentuating the latter’s looming threat.
The quaint set, featuring a rustic, working class New Orleans home, was used for some clever juxtapositioning that I thoroughly enjoyed. The two rooms were decorated in opposing colors of blue and red, and at various times the characters’ wardrobes and motives were further seen to be at odds with each other or their surroundings, as you saw the charismatic Blanche, clad in a flowing magenta robe, within a red room, lecturing a dazed and confused Stella, dressed in and surrounded by innocent blue.
I believe Tennessee Williams was after merely presenting a certain reality to his audience, without any concrete lessons in mind; leaving it up to the spectators to derive their own moral wisdom from his work as they saw fit. His aim was to break the joyful stereotype of theatre being a safe escapist dream of comedy and forced grins, and to bring the audience a simple onstage mirror to the beauties and tragedies of the lives they’re already living – and to prove that reality is enough.
To this end, Rapture Theatre’s production was a spotless mirror indeed.