A Streetcar Named Desire - Rachel Weisz, Elliot Cowan (Donmar 6/8/09) + Helen (Shakespeare's Globe 5/8/09) 8 August 2009

Before I roll off the Streetcar I would like to mention the show I saw the night before, Euripides' Helen and more specifically the theatre where I saw it, Shakespeare's Globe.

I was at the press night performance of Helen which is unusual as I tend not to go to Shakespeare's Globe - there's one main reason for this, Shakespeare. Don't get me wrong, I think Shakespeare is just fine but what I've learned over the years is that I only seem to like certain productions. I've also learned that for me these certain productions are few and far between. To date there are only three I've truly enjoyed and not just appreciated that come to mind - the full length Hamlet with Paul Rhys at Plymouth and the Young Vic Theatre, the recent All's Well That Ends Well at the National and the film version of Titus directed by Julie Taymor (that's a cheat I know, but it was a film version of her original stage version so I'm counting it).

Anyway, I thought a Greek classic could be interesting, and it's not Shakespeare. Well, everyone seemed to enjoy it, mostly, but I didn't. Although it's not Shakespeare it still had that Shakespeare edge in it's style. It was mostly presentational storytelling and not much pathos, for me. I just couldn't connect. From what I understand this was a literal translation of the original Greek without much thought for the original poetry. That explained alot.

Strange thing about Shakespeare's Globe, the elements that make it special are the same that I don't really like. I was sat at the top with a pole blocking some of my view and that immediately took me out of that place I need to be in to concentrate. I think there are more partially obstructed views than not in the Globe. Plus, of course it's still light outside and everyone else in the audience is in plain view, so much in fact that there's almost no delineation between audience and production. I usually find the audience much more interesting and end up watching the groundlings and the blank expressions of those seated opposite me. As a result, I miss out on great chunks of what's happening on stage. It's great to experience the Globe a few times but I don't find it to be an ideal place to see theatre. And great reviews aside, I didn't notice alot of people enraptured by the production. I think if you generally enjoy Shakespeare you will enjoy Helen (and it's only 90 minutes with no interval).

On to Streetcar at the Donmar. I love Tennessee Williams. Let's get that out of the way first. However, that fact in no way clouds my reactions to the productions. Tennessee Williams is my Shakespeare. To date, in London, I've seen five productions of Tennessee Williams plays - two poor, two great, one excellent. First the poor - Night of the Iguana with Woody Harrelson. Boring and uninvolving. The other, Summer and Smoke - same experience. It just didn't work and quite possibly as I saw it at the end of a truncated run, the actors may have lost interest. The great - The Glass Menagerie with Jessica Lange in the West End directed by Rupert Goold along with The Rose Tattoo with Zoe Wannamaker at the National. And the excellent - A Streetcar Named Desire at the Donmar.

A word to those who have only seen the film version - nothing could prepare you for how visceral, sexual, shocking and moving it is on stage. It's been widely known that cuts were made to the film so it could pass the censors. Part of that footage was reinstate in recent DVD versions - the scene where Stella slinks down the stairs to Stanley after a bust up. It was deemed too sexually provocative by 1950's standards. I always forget that the censoring and strict standards applied to films in those years didn't apply to the stage. On stage Streetcar gets ugly, and real. I can't help but think how it must have felt to have experienced it during its original stage incarnation in 1947. It must have been like getting hit by lightning. If it feels electrifying now, it must have been a crazy force of nature type hurricane back then. It's a classic and won the Pullitzer for a reason.

I've always depended on the kindness of strangers. I don't want realism, I want magic. STELLA!
As with many classic plays there are tense moments when the classic lines appear. One false move and they can often take you right out of the moment. It's a dangerous line between remaining true to the text and character whilst giving 'those' lines a new spin. On top of that it's just getting Tennessee right.

What most of the American South based Tennessee Williams productions I saw were missing was an understanding of the American South and the Southerner. In addition, I would venture to say that his dialogue can be as difficult for some actors as Shakespeare's. Tennessees language is a mixture of poetry and straight ahead realism and humour. Getting that balance right can be tricky business. You really have to understand the character and get in the groove to sucessfully pull it off. It's so much more than just getting the accent right. This production gets it right. There's not one wrong note in it's style and delivery (although accents are sometimes shaky it doesn't matter - at all). I think much of this is down to the American director who is himself from the South.

I now realise I'm assuming you know the story. If you don't, here is the nutshell version (thanks Amazon)-

Fading southern belle Blanche DuBois is adrift in the modern world. When she arrives to stay with her sister Stella in a crowded, boisterous corner of New Orleans her delusions of grandeur bring her into conflict with Stella's crude, brutish husband Stanley. Eventually their violent collision course causes Blanche's fragile sense of identity to crumble, threatening to destroy her sanity and her one chance at happiness.

Back to the production, all of the performances are solid. I really believed that Blanche (Rachel Weisz) and Stella (Ruth Wilson) were sisters. Great casting there. I think the most difficult role is Stanley, mainly because every actor will always have to fight to get out of the original's - Marlon Brando - shadow. Elliot Cowan carves his own Stanley - frightening, lecherous, primal and sometimes conflicted. There were a few spots, however, mostly in the beginning where I thought he might have chosen to channel Brando's voice but this could have been a deluded expectation on my part. Strange side point - Mr Cowan's body is ripped beyond belief (mainly due to his personal atheletic interests) and although that's not my preference, I heard a great many 'Stanley's fit' statements during the interval and afterwards. I find this really strange some choose to ignore how brutish Stanley is and just see sex. Talk about parallels.

Luckily my friend and I were sitting stage right next to the aisle in the fifth (and back) row in the stalls so had a good view. I imagine however that If you were on the other side or sitting closer to the upstage area you may have your views impaired. The action takes place in two rooms, separated by a sheer curtain that is sometimes drawn. Sightlines seem to be an issue sometimes with the Donmar. I'm am seeing it again in September and will be on the other side so we'll see.

Another side note - a testament to the talent of Rachel Weisz. It was evident that she was suffering with a cold. She had to blow and wipe at her nose a few times and there were tissues and hankies available in various places on stage. Despite this there was not one time when it impaired her performance. She gave a full on, fully realised and touchingly accurate performance, bringing Blanche's inner world to life. Neither her energy nor passion ever flagged. I never for a moment felt that she was giving less as a result of illness. A true professional in every sense of the word.

Lastly, I have always been moved by the filnal scenes in the film. In this production those emotions were maginfied 10 fold. I 'felt' it. I was embarrassed, saddened, moved - I held my breath and fought back tears. Just thinking about it moves me even now. What a thrill. They have all done Tennesee justice. I loved it.