Jeremy Malies in Hampshire
5 June 2018
In her programme notes, director Chelsea Walker says: “This is a play which feels alive and kicking. It’s muscular, youthful and sensual and the text deserves to be looked at afresh.” That’s quite an undertaking. Walker, her cast, designer and technical team deliver abundantly.
The ensemble. Photo credit: The Other Richard.
Going to the theatre at the last minute on a whim without prior research, I was initially puzzled: “Why is the set so minimalist? Will they sacrifice social detail for broad effect? What will they draw from all this?” After a slow burn (particularly from Kelly Gough as Blanche who takes a while to inhabit her character) the approach becomes clear. Walker propels the lyricism of the play to new heights by making much of the stage movement balletic and this process also lends itself to fluid dialogue.
The interpretation should pass muster even with purists. At no time is the play warped out of its natural guise; there are numerous stage directions buried in the speeches and they are observed scrupulously. All the actors prove credible with the notoriously difficult lengthened vowels than can bedevil less adept productions of Williams’ plays.
Gough rises to the challenges of the big speeches, injecting a true narrative arc into major moments such as telling us how the family estate has been mortgaged away. She is simultaneously sympathetic and repellent as she crumbles when Mitch (Dexter Flanders) finally insists on examining her in a bright light.
There is a true sense of community in this incarnation of Elysian Fields with neighbours showing lewd curiosity as the lives of the main characters unravel below them on a two-tier set. In the bedroom, the close work between Stella (Amber James) and Stanley (Patrick Knowles) during the domestic violence is excellent though not as disturbing as Stanley’s final assault on Blanche. Never have I heard more menace and sense of doom in his line: “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!”
The setting is the modern day and many elements of the plot have a topicality that underlines the durability of the piece. In one of her few moments of self-awareness, Blanche says: “I’ve got to be good and keep my hands off children.” (She has been sacked as an English teacher for a sexual relationship with a seventeen-year-old pupil.) As I type this, a female middle school English teacher from Iowa has just been arrested and put on bond for alleged sexual contact with a male teenaged pupil.
This appears a true group effort with a devised element. It’s coherent and exudes authenticity. There is a telling line by Blanche to Mitch after their row. “I don’t want realism. I want magic!” You learn early as a reviewer that speaking on behalf of authors is generally bad practice but I’ll chance my arm. Never precious about his work and always mischievous, Tennessee Williams would have loved this. Truly magical.