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 The Theatreguide.London Review


A Streetcar Named Desire
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Summer-Autumn 2009

One of the three or four greatest plays ever written by an American, Tennessee Williams' drama operates on many levels, all of which can capture and involve our hearts and minds.

Seen one way, it is the very human story of a woman at the edge of a mental and emotional breakdown, fighting desperately to retain her equilibrium, and of a man whose own fragile world she threatens, forcing him to destroy her. But there are also echoes of Chekhov in the clash of a beautiful but dying culture and a cruder but vital new reality. And at the same time, it is about the fight within each individual between the impulse to ideals and the demands of the flesh.

And it offers two of the greatest acting roles in the American - indeed, the world - theatre.

All those are reasons to see this Donmar production. But for theatre lovers and theatre students there is another unexpected one, the opportunity to encounter and study something you have heard of all your life but probably never seen so clearly - an excellent actress totally miscast.

As the doomed Blanche DuBois, Rachel Weisz works admirably hard, and fails. The fault is not in any lack of talent. The problem is that Weisz inescapably brings qualities to her performance that are completely wrong for the role.

If we know anything about Blanche, it is that she enters already at the end of her mental and emotional tether and spends the play fighting off the collapse that eventually comes. But Weisz cannot help carrying an air of health, energy and assertiveness throughout, as well as giving the character an ironic distance from herself that communicates mental strength rather than frailty.

When she says 'I don't want realism. I want magic,' it isn't a desperate cry but an imperious command. Her aria that ends 'Don't hang back with the brutes' is not a plea for help in fighting her demons, but a cold schoolmarmish lecture. And when she is briefly tempted by the beauty and innocence of a newspaper boy, it isn't pathetic, but just creepy.

None of this is a criticism of Weisz, who tries hard and does bring the occasional just-right note to the character - for example, her decision that Blanche is nearsighted but too vain to wear her glasses, and the subtle and efficient way she communicates that. Indeed, you can appreciate the dedication and talent that go into Weisz's efforts even as you watch them fail.

Weisz should really be in Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, playing Maggie, and she'd make a fascinating Hedda Gabler and, perhaps someday, Cleopatra - roles that could build on her intelligence, beauty and inescapable inner strength. But not Blanche.

Elliot Cowan also brings unconventional colours to her antagonist Stanley, but in his case they work. With a slurring and slowness of speech that almost suggest a punch-drunk prize-fighter, his Stanley is more vulnerable than you might anticipate, and Cowan's emphasis is less on Stanley's crudeness than on his love and need for his wife Stella, and for their life together that Blanche is threatening.

As a result, he is more sympathetic than some previous Stanleys, and the play sometimes feel more about him than about Blanche.

Stella is something of a thankless role, more a prize being fought over by the other two than a developed character, though Ruth Wilson makes the most of Williams' hints of spunk and independence. Barnaby Kay makes Mitch a man out of his depth in ordinary day-to-day life, and certainly unable to fathom or cope with the tragedies and potential tragedies unfolding around him.

Director Rob Ashford must share the credit for the successful performances, and for inventive use of the Donmar's limited stage space, but also some of the burden of the central miscasting.

(Postscript: I have to confess that mine was a minority position, as Rachel Weisz won every Best Actress award that season.)

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Streetcar Named Desire - Donmar 2009