Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer prize-winning masterpiece “A Streetcar Named Desire” has been brought back to the Lyric Theatre for the first time since 1984 thanks to Irish Times Theatre Award-winning director Emma Jordan.
Set in the New Orleans’ Latin Quarter, the play follows Southern beauty Blanche DuBois, who, in an attempt to escape her former life and past trauma, fulfils a role of false pretence in an attempt to escape the fact that she is not who she wants or claims to be.
As the play unfolds, this façade starts to marry into reality as Blanche struggles to balance the fine lines of truth and pretence she has created, slowly falling from grace into (what some call) madness. In today’s world we’d recognise symptoms of PTSD and treat her with dignity and sympathy instead of letting her drift into survival and coping mechanisms such as alcohol dependency and the needy, desperate love-seeking in not-so-nice men. It’s important to note that the play is set in a time when women were dependant on men and the lack of opportunities (plus heavy judgement that would undoubtedly come from society should a woman show signs of strength or stray from societal norms), meant that often women felt trapped in situations which they struggled to control. Compare that to the recent reaction to modern day music heroine Cardi B’s admission to using men to get through hard times and we can take a macro look at how women’s situations and perceptions have evolved.
But back to this performance - this Blanche is played by Aoibheann McCann with a fragile, yet steel intensity. I was mesmerised by her, and her powerful performance saw her act almost as stage manager, frantically trying to keep up the web of lies she has spun. As each lie comes undone to reveal the desperate truth, the complex and tragic character comes apart and McCann’s captivating performance is truly outstanding.
Blanche arrives at her sister Stella’s home in the impoverished Latin Quarter with hopes of starting a new life after losing her ancestral mansion, her job and her reputation. She is introduced to her violent brother-in-law Stanley, played brilliantly by Mark Huberman who despises his wife’s sister and her background. In a collision of different worlds, conflicts between the two soon follow.
McCann and Huberman act out the perfect display of ferocious hatred in the intense scenes that follow as the characters’ passionate dislike for each other reaches fever point. Huberman’s portrayal of the brutal Staney is impeccable, although my one critique is that his accent is more Bronx than Southern. That’s not important though, given his performance and presence. Like Meghan Tyler, who plays a sensational Stella, I can see how she’d want to make love to him and run from him at the same time.
There was barely a dry eye in the house as Meghan broke down before us in those final, heart-breaking scenes. The raw emotion that radiated from her performance was captivating and I couldn’t take my eyes off her, trying at once to empathise with her loss and sorrow as well as understand how a sister could let her sibling be taken off to the looney bin. The sense of loss paired with the realisation that she is once again truly alone allows us to glimpse what life is truly like for Stella; so watching as a woman living in modern society is difficult.
Without losing any of the complexity and tragedy that blankets itself around the original script, Jordan has successfully portrayed a story where there is a constant power struggle between fantasy and reality, shown faultlessly in the form of Blanche.
Although, as we begin to delve deeper into the storyline, we have to question whether anyone has a true grasp in reality; - from Stella who can’t see past the sex in her relationship to confront the true extent of the abuse by husband Stanley, to Stanley’s best friend Mitch (Seamus O’Hara) who normalises Stanley’s (and his own) domestic abuse by saying that “it’s ok, they are crazy about each other”. The irony isn’t lost on me that Blanche, with her traditional southern values, is horrified at the domestic abuse yet blind to how men have abused her too.
As we watch Blanche unfold before us, we can’t help but question whether she has in fact got her happy ending. Gore Vidal once said Tennessee Williams told him that A Streetcar Named Desire has a happy ending, and as I watched Blanche walk away on the arm of a doctor, leaving Stella behind trapped with a violent, drink-fuelled Stanley from whom she may never escape, you can’t deny that her new life, flirting enjoyably with the doctors at whatever institution she ends up in, appears to be more appealing than that of her younger sister’s, so this powerful production leaves us questioning whether the tragedy is more Stella’s than her older sister’s. The character of Blanche is often said to be based on Williams’ sister Rose, who suffered from mental health issues and tragically became incapacitated after a lobotomy. I do hope Blanche didn’t meet that end.
As ever with Lyric plays, the background team has proven itself to be as remarkable as those on stage. Enda Kenny did a fantastic job with the costumes and Lyric favourite Ciaran Bagnall excelled once again with the set and lighting. The music (by Carl Kennedy) successfully moved the plot along and the whole set beautifully highlighted Blanche’s move into madness.