Manchester’s Royal Exchange is rapidly becoming my favourite major venue. The renovated building is beautiful and storied, while theatre-in-the-round can summon a special magic, like that conjured by the Crucible toward the start of the challenge. This weekend it was a visit to see A Streetcar Named Desire.
Tennessee Williams’ 1947 work portrays the arrival of Blanche DuBois in the home of her younger sister Stella and husband Stan. The fabulously-named DuBois is an alcoholic fantasist, fleeing an old life which has fallen apart, though her Southern-Belle manners prevent her from revealing the reasons why.
For the sake of sisterly love, Stella gives Blanche the benefit of the doubt, opening her house and her heart to her elder sibling. Yet any hope our heroine might be able to start again and find salvation is quickly strangled as Blanche flirts with Stanley while encouraging Stella to leave him for someone better suited to her genteel upbringing.
This interpretation placed a heavy emphasis on Blanche’s alcoholism. Alone or in a group, centre stage or in the shadows, she is either scoring or looking for her next bottle of liquor. Alcoholism is a deceitful disease. Those who suffer from it find it easy to lie to others because they have become expert at lying to themselves. In this, as in much else, Blanche is a victim but a hard one to pity.
In contrast to Stella, the horny-handed son of toil Stanley has no sympathy for Blanche’s plight. Provoked by her condescension toward his rough manners and ‘Polack’ background, he dismantles the fiction of blameless misfortune that Blanche has depicted and exposes the venal reasons she had to abandon her old home and career as a teacher.
Neither character should be sympathetic at all. Notwithstanding her drink problem, Blanche takes a swing-ball to her sister’s life, is revealed to have had sex with one of her pupils, and during the play flirts very manipulatively with another teenage boy. Stan is a chauvinist who is prone to violent outbursts and assaults both his wife and her sister.
And yet, as Billington points out, “As in so many great plays, we are not forced to take sides…[Williams] sees the virtues and defects in both his main characters and in the values they represent”.
Blanche has suffered terribly in life. Her husband committed suicide after revealing he was gay. She lives in fear of being seen by the male gaze as anything but young and perfect and cannot conceive of being happy through any other route than marriage. This pathway to happiness is effectively closed off, so she finds solace in (drunken) fantasy and dreams of old-fashioned romance.
Stanley’s furious response to Blanche’s arrival reflects a deeper resentment at a society that has told him he is a “Pig—Polak—disgusting—vulgar—greasy!” He stands for an unspun, unpolished version of America in contrast to Blanche’s mannerisms.
Two deeply flawed characters who commit terrible crimes, not least against each other, but nonetheless garner an element of sympathy.
The quality of that sympathy comes from the performances of the leads. Maxine Peake gave a very nuanced performance; capturing Blanche’s predatory sexuality as well as her sad and often childlike desire to banish reality and live as a fantasy princess. Ben Batt was her equal, distilling Stanley’s sinewy rage and sexualised aggression. Two performances and an overall production worthy of the venue.
15 down – 86 to go