Just make Maxine Peake a Dame now. She is one of the most versatile and brave, well, fearless really, female actors working on English stages. She makes you want her to play every role such is her fortitude and bravura style. Peake makes the part of Blanche DuBois entirely her own in a production that is peppered with stellar performances. Sarah Frankcom’s spare, visceral production of A Streetcar Named Desire is astonishing, lyrical and tragic – all at once and continually. Brilliant.
The light dips a little. It’s afternoon and hot. Very hot. She looks slightly damp from the heat. Then a young lad, collecting money for the local paper, turns up. Tentative. Looking for a different woman. Confused.
She turns, assesses the lad. He is not a man, yet, but the flush of adolescence is strong about his handsome features and supple form. She drinks him in, her eyes undressing him. He is startled, but aroused.
She talks gently, with aching promise in every vowel, teasing him, exciting him. Embarrassed, possibly unable to control his manhood, he seeks to leave. But she calls him back, seductively, in a way that would cause Marilyn Monroe to take notes. He returns and surrenders to her kiss.
She plants her painted ruby lips firmly on his and tastes his mouth. He gets more excited but she pulls away, her hair laughing at him, her back-of-the-throat amused sound gently mocking. She is in control and there will be no more kissing. Gaily, she dismisses the lad and he goes, glad of what he got and sad about what he did not.
It no longer feels hot. Everything is cool. Icy even. But not cold icy; sharp, instinctive icy. Carnal and commanding.
This is Sarah Frankcom’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning A Streetcar Named Desire, now playing at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. It’s a stunning production of great power, real inventiveness and constant surprise. And at its heart, there is a world class performance from Maxine Peake whose Blanche DuBois is better than recent celebrated turns in the same role from Rachel Weiss, Cate Blanchett and Gillian Anderson.
Peake really is mesmerising. It is near impossible not to keep attention entirely on her, no matter who is speaking or what is happening. She is intoxicating, utterly and completely, and it is difficult to risk missing a second of her superb, immaculately judged performance.
Like all great actors, Peake has total mastery of her voice. Her accent is perfect: lush and languid, with the vivid sound of her character’s hometown. She never drops out of the correct accent, although she cleverly creates different versions of Blanche’s voice for different occasions. There is the quite high-pitched, sing-song innocent voice, used when Blanche is trying to be coy or innocent; the alcohol smoked version of that innocent voice, useful for seduction or getting one’s own way; and the deeper, almost basso-profundo, timbre for scolding and disagreeable invective.
This superb and very musical approach to Williams’ evocative language pays real dividends, especially when combined with the turn-on-a-dime physical transformations which Peake employs constantly. In the time it takes for her to move her head, Peake can completely transform the mood, completely transform the sense of what Blanche is thinking about – or doing. It is phenomenal to watch.
When she first meets Ben Batt’s Stanley, there is a micro-second where Blanche drinks him in – you see her eyes boring underneath his clothes, imagining the well-honed masculine flesh underneath the bowling garb. Then it has passed and she is being convivial with her sister’s husband. It’s so fleeting that you wonder if you imagined it. But you didn’t. It’s the kind of moment which occurs regularly, as Peake makes her butterfly version of Blanche flutter, scurry and obfuscate.
This Blanche is both frail and cunning, sexy and unappealing, sisterly and not, absurd and gentle, tyrannical and coquettish, powerful and powerless. Like a Rubik’s Cube, Peake makes Blanche colourful and multi-faceted, but entirely whole and supremely fascinating.
It helps that Peake’s fellow cast members are also excellent.
Batt manages to completely eradicate any notion of Marlon Brando within seconds of appearing as Stanley. This macho rock-ape is a very different kind of bully beast, the lean and hungry kind. Like a werewolf, Batt has two very different sides to Stanley: the lusty, ardent lover and father and the brutal, violent maniac. Linking these sides is a smart, agile mind, one that constantly seeks ways to get the better of any given situation.
Stanley is a loathsome character and it is a tribute to Batt’s skill that he manages to make the audience forget that -mostly. You see and feel the effects of his raw, honed masculinity, in much the same way that Stella must see it. Humour is a potent tool for Batt; he makes Stanley funny in fresh ways. Less moody moper, more jokey snake. This pays off – having laughed with Stanley, it is very hard to watch his physical abuse of Stella and his savage rape of Blanche.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster is quite marvellous, and refreshing, as Stella. She has spunk in spades and thoroughly convinces as unable to resist Stanley’s virile charms despite the horrific violence and uncertainty that comes with it. She does not play the part as a victim and she stands up to both her sister and her husband, in scenes that electrify and sadden.
Happily, and marvellously, Duncan-Brewster and Peake really do convince as sisters – easily and completely. There is a remarkable sensibility between them, much is unspoken, but the tenderness and care that each bestows on the other rings true. More than any other production I have seen, this A Streetcar Named Desire sees the two sisters on really an even keel. It’s about them both and their relationship with each and Stanley – what makes it and what destroys it.
As Mitch, the friend of Stanley who falls for Blanche but is humiliated by both her and Stanley, Yousseff Kerkour brings an entirely original take on the part, one that really works within the dynamics of the central trio. It is hard not to root for Mitch and to wish that Blanche could see what Mitch might offer. Subtle, silent and strong, Kerkour’s very human portrait of pained ardour is insightful. His venomous farewell to Stanley caused many breaths to be held.
There is really good work too from Michelle Butterly, whose arch and cynical neighbour, Eunice, is a real character treat. Reece Noi is terrific as the young lad who stumbles into Blanche’s web and Ryan Pope and Reuben Johnson round out the bowling/card playing friends of Stanley with gruff earthiness.
The space at The Royal Exchange is intimate and in the round. While the intimacy is perfect for this most intimate of plays, one would not regard in the round as the optimum performance space for A Streetcar Named Desire. Until now.
Fly Davis’ design is revelatory. Everything is stripped back to bare essentials. A green felt surface provides the main performing space, instantly summoning up the notion of a table on which games are played. The sections of the house in which Stella and Stanley live are delineated with strip fluorescent lighting, stark and unfussy, generating a clear sense of minimalist comfort. There is a glass wall separating the bathroom from the bedroom and living areas, adding to the sense that everything that happens in the house can be seen and heard from any place in the house.
The sense of a hothouse could not be clearer. The clothes all characters wear suggests heat of the unrelenting kind and there is the constant sound of the rattling streetcar to place the action in New Orleans. Jack Knowles’ lighting is miraculous, and creates atmospheric visual palettes which are richly rewarding. The final tableau, Peake in dazzling form saying one of the most iconic lines every written for the American stage, is astonishing; a fizzing cocktail of light.
The fight scenes, vicious and realistic, are cruel and wanton; a real credit to Fight Director Kevin McCurdy. Peter Rice’s sound design is terrific and special praise should go to Kara Tsiaperas as the dialect work was faultless. Frankcom’s team is first class.
Everything about Frankcom’s visualisation and delivery of A Streetcar Named Desire deserves praise. Everything. It never flags, as productions often do, weighed down by the excesses of particular performers. Nor are there any directorial tricks to confuse or compromise the essence of Williams’ intent. It’s funnier than any version I have ever seen, actual laughter turning to frozen horror as, in life, it so often does.
And there are many illuminating touches: the emphasis on the bathtub pays dividends, from the almost baptism/rebirth of Stanley to the watery-almost-tomb for Blanche; the vacuuming scene which follows on so clinically from the rape scene, the juxtapositioning alarming but honest; Blanche’s alcohol dependency given corporeal form by some spirits (get it) who appear like sirens and call/whisper/seduce with one word: Sugar.
It is not exactly a reinvention of Williams’ famous play, but Frankcom’s production is certainly a new bar; a revelatory take on an enduring classic. It should be snapped up by the National Theatre and housed in London – apart from the Young Chekhov season, there has been nothing nearly this good there under Rufus Norris and certainly not in the Dorfman Theatre where this production would most naturally play.
Never mind the nunnery, get Ye to Manchester. This is absolutely unmissable for anyone interested in theatre.