A Streetcar Named Desire (Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane)

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It’s almost 60 years since it was written, so is it too late to be enraged at the domestic violence in this harrowing play by Tennessee Williams? A Streetcar named Desire certainly hasn’t changed anything, and it’s even more relevant in our own violent age, so how should an angry feminist reviewer look at it now? Most of us remember the heart-breaking anguish of Marlon Brando from the film of the play (be still, my beating heart) but would forgive him anything then – mostly because, in my case, of his own despairing cry to his wife Stella when she threatens to leave him. But this was in the ’60s, before feminism.

This new production by Todd Macdonald for La Boite makes those of us who know the play see it in a new light, while I’m sure that the group of senior school students who were there on the night I saw it were gobsmacked, for there was never a peep out of them.

Macdonald’s lens, for all its sharp focus, has a gentle, less judgmental gaze, and in this production all three main characters – Blanche (Bridie Carter), her sister Stella (Ngoc Phan) and Stella’s husband Stanley (Travis McMahon) are shown as three equal victims – Blanche of her alcoholism and fragile mind, Stella of her moral weakness in putting up with her husband’s violence, and Stanley of the violent nature which always dominates his loving heart. But although we pity them all, we can’t make excuses for them anymore, and Macdonald realises this, forcing us to judge them in a different way, with our deeper modern understanding of psychopathology.

We can only pity these characters, for there’s no redemption possible, and yet the play is intensely poetic.

This is in every way a new experience of a well-known and greatly-admired classic play, with actors we are not familiar with in Brisbane, most of them here making their debut with La Boite. We see Guy Webster, best known as a musical director, taking three different roles as well as leading the post-war, slightly edgy jazz band, which also features the astonishing voice of Kristal West, who brings every song alive.

Vilma Mattila’s fractured discontinuous set captures perfectly the breaking up of all our expectations, for on the undulating ramps which make up the floors of this shabby apartment, she places the most ordinary working class furniture that seems to come straight from the Salvos.

It’s a play that’s ridden with class as well as sexual issues; Stella and Blanche have both come down in the world, Stella by her choice of rough trade in the form of Stanley, and Blanche – well it’s not spelled out, but surely her alcoholism, her bizarre behaviour and her general nymphomania have much to do with it.

As for Stanley, whom these days we are allowed to see as a working-class, rough-as-guts fallen hero, his type will forever be with us as someone who will always emanate both revulsion and a kind of perverse seductive appeal. Perhaps, Williams is saying, such types are endemic in the human race, that the appeal of rough trade will be and always has been with us. For all the tawdry realism of the down-at-heel French Quarter in New Orleans, the events of the plot could, and are constantly, played out in any section of society throughout Western history. Is Williams showing us here the inevitability of the grossness of human society? Is there no escape for the human race? Or redemption?

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Bridie Carter as Blanche

But as a counterpoint there is genuine goodness here, not in the false morality of Mitch (a finely nuanced performance from Colin Smith), who dumps Blanche as soon as Stanley reveals the sordid details of her past, but in the solid support of the upstairs neighbour Eunice, who takes on her own obnoxious husband (oh Stella, why won’t you learn from her?) and supports and comforts Stella in all her humiliations at the hands of Stanley. Parmis Rose plays her as an object lesson that it isn’t necessary to end up like either Stella or Blanche. Eunice is as rough as the rest of them, but with a dash of the good old milk of human kindness that isn’t apparent in any the others. For Stella’s mute submission to Stanley even after he beats her up is clearly fuelled by her sexual desire for him, and it’s interesting to speculate what will happen to her marriage once the baby is growing up into a snotty-nosed squawking brat.

The only hope for any of the characters, eventually, is for Blanche, who cracks up completely and is taken off to the funny farm by a compassionate doctor and a snappy nurse after Stanley has raped her. Once again she has become dependent on the kindness of strangers, but once she’s in the care of this unlovely nurse we can be sure that this won’t last, either.

We can only pity these characters, for there’s no redemption possible, and yet the play is intensely poetic. Weep for them we must, rather than judge, for as crude and vulgar the situation may be, the script is at the same time highly poetic.

How can this be, if Williams wasn’t overtly concerned with poetry here? As Wilfred Owen said about his own poems of World War I: “Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity”.

And that’s all the comfort we can expect from Streetcar, the comfort that serves in a whirlwind – that “all life death does end, and each day dies with sleep”.

Still a wonderful play, but here with new insights that make it come alive in an even more depressing way. It’s a must-see.

A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Todd Macdonald for La Boite Theatre Company is at the Roundhouse Theatre, Kelvin Grove until November 12. Main image: Blanche (Bridie Carter) and Stanley (Travis McMahon).

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