Jeremy Malies in north London
16 January 2023
“I don’t want realism. I want magic!” These are the words of Blanche DuBois (Patsy Ferran) to Mitch (Dwane Walcott) during their final meeting in the play. My instinct is that this could easily have been a request made by director Rebecca Frecknall to her cast. And of course, it’s a valid approach but I left the Almeida thinking that the magic had been sprinkled unevenly here.
Paul Mescal and Patsy Ferran. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
When Ferran referenced her character’s literary heroes, Hawthorne and Whitman, I knew that for once we had a Blanche who could convince you that she had actually read them. Ferran is equally good when she captures the posturing, the shabby-gentility, and the snobbery. She also convinces as an alcoholic while flicking crafty glances at her host’s stock of bourbon as it appears in various locations on Madeleine Girling’s in-the-round set. Having the audience surround the stage works well because we all have an equal view of the fight for territory as Blanche tries to dominate the modest tenement flat in Elysian Fields, New Orleans, where she has sought refuge with her younger sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski.
It’s an important aspect of Frecknall’s treatment that props only remain in view while they are relevant to the action, with the minor cast members constantly handing items to the principals. This is a lean, uncluttered production with occasional elements of ballet that suggest physical theatre. The entire cast remains onstage throughout in dark alcoves either eavesdropping or attending to their daily affairs and so reinforcing the idea of a neighbourhood.
The actor who impressed me most and for who this production is a triumph is Paul Mescal (lauded for his screen performances in Normal People and Aftersun). He is a multi-faceted Stanley who alternates between a primal hunter-gatherer figure and an astute blue-collar worker striving for promotion and a better life. Mescal shows that his character immediately suspects how his sister-in-law’s excesses have robbed his wife of her inheritance. A quick-witted sardonic interrogation of Blanche about the Belle Reve estate is a highlight of the evening. And Mescal has a winning way with Stanley’s homespun philosophy and irony: “Luck is believing that you are lucky.”
This is only my interpretation and in today’s politically correct environment the issue will have been left finely balanced: I believe that Frecknall (assisted by fight director Jonathan Holby’s skilful handling of the domestic violence) has had the courage to hint that Stella (Anjana Vasan) may find the violence in her marriage a turn-on.
Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Dialect coach Rebecca Clark Carey deserves credit for easing all the cast members through Williams’s trademark elongated Mississippi Delta vowels. They can easily become grating and descend into caricature but here they contribute to a coherent social group.
The main characters receive excellent support across the board, notably from Walcott as Mitch who sits on the meter of some of the most lyrical speeches in the play while conjuring up visions of his mother, the string-pulling staple Williams matriarch who is off stage but always a factor.
No archetypal trad jazz here (I should have liked some) but I was entranced by a female crooner who added mystique with Angus MacRae’s ethereal music which he says has in part been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe who happens to be mentioned by Blanche in the dialogue. Sound by Peter Rice is well judged; we often hear the hubbub of this raffish area of New Orleans and Ferran is given just the right amount of reverb as she purrs her way through the gorgeous ballad “It’s Only a Paper Moon”. The echo is one of many clever devices that hint at space outside.
I imagine lighting this piece is simple because so many of the lighting cues are not just detailed in the stage directions but embedded in the dialogue given Blanche’s obsession with only being seen in a flattering way. Or perhaps this ups the ante? Lee Curran excels when, in doubt as to whether to accept a goodnight kiss from Mitch, our anti-heroine distracts her admirer by looking for Pleiades (the Seven Sisters) in the night sky. I stared upwards and realized that Curran had picked them out for us. Basic I suppose but done with style and skill.
Patsy Ferran as Blanche. Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
So why does Ferran (a late replacement for the injured Lydia Wilson) disappoint? Seldom have I written with more enthusiasm about an actor than when reviewing her in another Williams piece, Summer and Smoke, and a near-perfect Three Sisters, both directed by Frecknall at the same venue. She conveys all the thwarted ambitions that were part of Williams’s own hang-ups and has painful levels of self-awareness as she realizes that hysteria is developing into full-blown madness. But there is a gaudy almost brassy element to the character as written that even Ferran’s exceptional technical armoury can’t quite run to.
A drummer, Tom Penn, has punctuated the evening with percussion and often simulated thunder. Finally, he takes the role of the asylum doctor who leads Ferran out. Maybe sanity really does end not with a bang but a whimper, and yet this was a limp exit. I thought back eight years to Benedict Andrews’s production at the Young Vic (also presented in the round) and how the theatre became a vacuum as Gillian Anderson tottered off. A yard from her as she walked up an aisle, I like others, wanted to make some small gesture of solidarity. I felt no such empathy here.
Of course there is much to admire, and respect for the text is absolute with all of Williams’s feminist messages and rallying calls intact as Blanche speaks to Stella about “this dark march toward whatever it is we’re approaching”. And the production underlines that the story has not dated: abuse at home in a time of recession is on the rise; properties are being lost after unwise equity release; and the merest hint of sexual impropriety between a teacher and a pupil means the end of the teacher’s career. Each of those themes is a building block of the plot. Williams’s central concerns appear as prescient as ever but there is something missing in this production that I can’t quite grasp.