We were off out last night to see Tennessee Williams’ tour de force play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, at the beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre. Starring Maxine Peake as Blanche DuBois, it was a sold out performance. Tickets are very difficult to come by. People are queuing for returns in the hope of seeing it.
The play was first shown on Broadway (that’s New York, not Chadderton) in 1947 and was a critical and audience success. It won prizes and has been shown around the world ever since and was turned into a movie. The latest production is here at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.
The play centres around Blanche DuBois, a member of one of those grand, southern families who had plantations in Mississippi. Over time bad management and bad choices have reduced the land the family owned to the grand plantation house and about 20 acres of land. Just before the play begins that last vestige of the family’s former wealth has finally gone to the creditors. Blanche survived on an English teacher’s salary. At 16 she had married a beautiful young man who ‘wrote poetry’. ‘Wrote poetry’ being a euphanism for his sexual preferences it turns out. Blanche either doesn’t know this or chooses to ignore it until she finds her husband in bed with another man. He commits suicide. Blanche goes into decline making bad financial decisions and even more disasterous choices in men. She moves into a notorious hotel, the Flamingo, in her home town of Laurel, where we are led to believe she supplements her finances by entertaining men. The local army base declare her ‘off limits’ to the young soldiers who are trained there. But things come to a head when she has an affair with one of her students, a young man of 17. She is fond of a drink or six.
All that happens before the play begins and is revealed through the evening. She arrives at her sister’s house in New Orleans with 65 cents and a trunk of expensive clothes from her former life. She plays the grand, southern lady and this annoys her sister’s Polish husband who sees right through her. While she continues her former lifestyle at their expense, the husband is digging into her past. They are trapped in two rooms together in a sticky New Orleans summer and tensions run high. It would be bad to say how it finishes. But if you can, get a ticket and go and see this production. The critics loved it and the audience were on their feet at the end last night. It began at 7 30 last night and I blanched myself when I saw it wouldn’t finish until 10 40. But it was so wonderfully acted and so tense that the time flew by.
Maxine Peake was a triumph. I saw her play Hamlet here back in 2014. That was brilliant but this went up several notches. Ms Peake is one of our most accomplished actors doing work on TV, in films and in the theatre. She could work in London and raise her profile internationally. But she prefers to work in the north and we are grateful she does. It does the London critics no harm to take the train up to Manchester now and again.
I couldn’t decide if I felt sorry for Blanche or was she a monster? Bit of both I suppose. At one point a very young man comes to the house to collect money for newspapers. He’s 16 or 17. Blanche is home alone and comes on to the boy and kisses him. It’s the point where we realise why she was sacked from her job. It was one of the uncomfortable scenes I have ever seen in the theatre. It was so creepy. A few of the audience laughed. I wonder would they have done so if the roles had been reversed with an older man coming onto a teenaged girl? I suspect not.
There was an unusual piece of casting. The actor playing Stella DuBois, Blanche’s sister was black while Maxine Peake is white. Their acting was superb, bringing out the difficulties in the relationship between the two sisters. But, set in the southern states of America in the 1940s, wouldn’t someone had said something about a family containing black and white siblings? Especially one of the grand, plantation families even if it had fallen on hard times? Nothing was said so I just moved in and enjoyed the acting and the play. Maybe the Royal Exchange being PC with their casting?