Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, re-framed in electrifying staging by Cape Town theatre company, Abrahamse and Meyer Productions
|What: A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams – February 2–12, 2022|
Where: Artscape Theatre, Cape Town
Booking link: https://tickets.computicket.com/event/a_streetcar_named_desire/1276391
Running time: Two hours
Cast and creative credits: Scroll down for box
Two by Tenn: Watch two plays by Tennessee Williams- Streetcar and One Arm in Cape Town and get a special rate. See Computicket for details
Abrahamse and Meyer Productions’ electrifying staging of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire, is beautiful -visually and aurally. The staging (set, costumes, lighting, sound) is breathtaking. The four actors deliver flawless performances with authentic accent work. The company has re-framed Williams’ iconic play, by stripping it down. Peripheral characters and frippery have been excised and the narrative unwraps itself in a stark white hospital/asylum space, with Blanche DuBois in the centre. We look through her gaze at the tragic events of her life, from when she arrives in New Orleans, to find refuge with her sister, Stella. Their ancestral home, Belle Reve in the South has been lost. [Belle Reve – translated from French to English as ‘beautiful dream’ or ‘sweet dreams’. Blanche: French for ‘white’ and symbolically ‘innocent]. Blanche has nowhere to go. She schlepps her belongings in a trunk; remnants of her former life as a Southern Belle. Blanche arrives on tram, A Streetcar Named Desire but all hopes of finding desire is dashed in the squalor of the New Orleans abode of Stella and her brutish husband, Stanley. I loved this production. I have a lot to say and this a long review but I feel that it is important to tell you why I loved this production. Streetcar is considered as one of Williams’ best works and yet, in many quarters, it has incurred a bad reputation of being long and dated, stodgy and tired. This production, presented by Abrahamse and Meyer Productions is a stunner. Some of the houses in the current run, at Artscape [February 2022], have sold out. Read on and get your tickets, before they are all gone.
In a concept state of mind for Streetcar Named Desire
In Abrahamse and Meyer Productions’ concept production, they have flipped the narrative. The company has not merely given the play [first staged in 1947], a makeover or a new ‘look’ but has radically re-positioned the story. In their production, the story unfolds, a decade after Blanche’s “fall” from society. She is in the asylum. Her life replays in the sterile institution, cordoned off by sheets of plastic, screening Blanche and demarcating spaces. The sterile environment pings for me in the time of the pandemic. An evocative soundscape (Charl-Johan Lingenfelder) thrums from the interior and exterior (trams hurtling along for example). The nurse, doctor and orderly take on the roles of the protagonists, in Blanche’s memories. Director Abrahamse has cut out the peripheral characters but has cleverly re-assigned their lines to other characters. We don’t see the poker players. We don’t see the women kibbitzing. By doing this, Abrahamse has removed side-bar interludes . This provides space for Blanche’s story to breathe, heightening her as tragic heroine. It is ingenious and makes for thrilling viewing of A Streetcar Named Desire. In my past experience of the play, Blanche came across for me as predictable. Plot spoiler alert: If you don’t know the play-skip the rest of this paragraph. As I was saying, we are waiting for her to crumble after the assault and then rape by Stanley- and then be led off-stage- compliant-to the asylum. The wanton woman is shuttered away from society and that is the end. In this production, in the asylum (I think that it is more of a hospital), Blanche has the opportunity to excavate her past. She is a creature of the night. She hides her age in the shadows and dark. She hates the light and daylight and avoids looking at herself or being looked at. However, in this telling of the story, she must face herself, in the stark glare of the naked light bulbs dangling in the hospital. Astounding set design by Abrahamse – the dangling light bulbs and one Japanese paper lantern.
I had seen the 1951 film version, monologues in a school production and a recording of a staging of the play, so this viewing is my first experience of the play in a theatre. Watching this production, was like watching another play. Blanche has the opportunity to own her story; to embrace it and consider her role in life. Fiona Ramsay as Blanche delivers a brilliant performance. She made me gasp when Blanche says: “Deliberate cruelty is not forgiveable.” Clearly, Blanche has not been an angel. She had failed her young husband, a “degenerate” (he was homosexual). She had lost her teaching position because of her rampant sexuality. In those day, Blanche would have been branded as nymphomaniac, Nowadays, I suppose one might use sex addict or hyper sexed.
Whatever; Blanche was sexually voracious and insatiable. In creating the character of Blanche, Tennessee Williams was referencing his own much-loved sister, Rose who was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and in 1943, underwent a bilateral prefrontal lobotomy. It didn’t work and she had to be institutionalised for the rest of her life. Rose also had an avid sexual appetite. Blanche’s sexual activity, costs her job and the grand family home. The pain and grief comes out palpably in this production as we watch Blanche toying with desire and death – her aging, loss, pain. What also comes across profoundly is her processing of her sister Stella’s journey. Stella escaped. She left the hoity toity-ness back at their home in the South and re-invented herself in New Orleans. She stripped back her past and its artifice. She is an abusive relationship with a man who she keeps on forgiving. Blanche is bewildered by this but at the same time, we see how Blanche has tethered herself to men who have also used her. The tensions between asylum Blanche, interacting with the nurse –aka Stella (Melissa Heiden) is a tour de force.
Colour, sound, symbolism
In this concept staging of Streetcar, Abrahamse and Meyer Productions have worked with Faheem Bardien (lighting design) and Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (sound design) so that the dialogue and action is keyed in through the visual and auditory. Colour and music was important to Tennessee Williams and he frequently included notes in his scripts as it the music and colours in his productions. For instance, for Streetcar, Stanley always dons red pyjamas (passion, blood, death, rape). Blanche is garbed in blue – della Robbia blue- in the end scene. We will get to that. In this production, the baseline is white and the red pyjamas, lantern, blue and other colours become heightened against the sterility of the hospital whites. In conjunction, Bardeen create magic as he paints space with saturated colour – red – for example. Production spoiler alert. When Blanche wiggles into her outfit in della Robia blue, it is an unflattering hospital gown. It is devastating to see her; her passion and desires, tied up and off, at her back. We see Blanche, without her coiffured hair. Her hair is shorn, standing up. It is the antithesis of the primped up Southern Belle. The image of Blanche in her della Robbia hospital gown resonates for me in term of the women who were paraded, after World War II, through the streets of Paris, Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe, marking them as collaborators with the Nazis. Their hair was shaved. They were shamed publicly- even those who may not have had an opportunity to present their story of what may have occurred. In prisons, hospitals, asylums, labour and death camps, hair is shorn for hygiene and also to make everyone look the same. Inmates lose their identity and are dehumanised. It is easier to control people who have no hair or short hair and who wear uniforms. The image of Blanche in her hospital robe of della Robbia blue, brought me to tears. It evokes her story -being stripped of everything and being exposed. [A note on della Robbia blue: Andrea della Robbia- died 1482- was the nephew and disciple of Florentine Renaissance artist Luca della Robbia. Andrea developed a cobalt blue which was used for glazes and is known as della Robbia blue. It has been used to signify and symbolize purity in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna. Blanche DuBois is not exactly a virgin but she insists on being robed in della Robbia Blue- part of her illusions or delusions to be beautiful, forever young and virginal.]
Abrahamse and Meyer Productions’ clicks in at two hours. I would have happily sat down and watched it again- for another two hours. A note on length: There are three published versions of the play, authorised by Tennessee Williams. The two hour version is being used by Abrahamse and Meyer Productions. In addition, the set is simple- plastic sheeting, assortment of props such as trunks, table and medical trolley, light bulbs and Japanese lantern. There are no hydraulics. A crew is not needed to shift sets. Scene changes can absorb a great deal of time in a play like Streetcar. There is a seamless integration of scenes which segue into each other and which makes this production a joy to watch.
Intimately relatable in the age of #MeToo
Do not miss this breathtaking production –swathed in emotion and tapping in to the millennial cognizance that it is not okay to be in abusive relationships. Rape is not okay – even if a woman is highly sexed. Emotional abuse is not okay even when a man says that he is sorry and a woman claims that she loves him. Deliberate cruelty is never okay and not forgivable– nor is unintentional cruelty. A play that was first staged in 1946, urgently unwraps a bunch of uncomfortable truths about relationships going and gone bad and rotten. Get to see this play at Artscape in Cape Town. If you cannot, get to the Tennessee Williams Provincetown Festival in September 2022, where the play will be playing in repertory with One Arm – also by Williams and staged by Abrahamse Meyer Productions. This is a stylish, sophisticated and breathtaking staging of an important play. We are faced with the tragic heroine of Blanche DuBois. We are seduced by her and her fabulousness. It is distressing to watch the ruptures in her story; the abusive and brutish Stanley; the men that have used her. Marcel Meyer as Stanley, terrified me. He brings out the rage and frustration of Stanley; his helplessness and fury at racial slurs directed at him and his need to be the Man of the Household; holding it all in; until he doesn’t. Matthew Baldwin presents a measured foil as Mitch – the mommy’s boy who wants to be taken care of. All of the actors bring a sense of restraint to their protagonists. Fiona Ramsay doesn’t overdo the Southern Belle accent. It has been softened of stridency. She embodies Blanche and does not act her out- a magnificent performance – nuanced and layered in desire, fear of aging, death, madness- so much has been poured into Blanche, by Ramsay. Melissa Heiden as Stella/Nurse teases out tenderness and lightness and a deep empathy for Blanche.
Heroic and magnificent in della Robbia blue
I think ultimately that there is triumph in Abrahamse and Meyer Productions’ staging of A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche DuBois faces her story and comes to terms with her life. She becomes heroic and magnificent in her hospital gown of della Robbia blue. Brilliant theatre.
|A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams – new production- staged by Abrahamse and Meyer Productions – premiere season in Cape Town at Artscape-February 2–12, 2022 as part of the company’s Summer Season of World Theatre|
For the Cape Town premiere season, A Streetcar Named Desire, is playing in repertory, with One Arm, by Tennessee Williams. Both productions- Streetcar and One Arm – will be staged, in repertory in September 2022 at the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival in the USA.
Cast: Fiona Ramsay as Blanche du Bois with Marcel Meyer, Melissa Haiden and Matthew Baldwin
Director: Fred Abrahamse
Costume design: Marcel Meyer
Set design: Fred Abrahamse
Lighting design: Faheem Bardien
Sound design: Charl-Johan Lingenfelder
Producer: Abrahamse and Meyer Productions https://www.amptheatre.org/
❇ Featured image- Fiona Ramsay in A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams – new production [Feb 2022]- staged by Abrahamse and Meyer Productions. The production will tour in September 2022 to the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival. Images by Fiona MacPherson. Supplied.
Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: