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Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski just might be the most contrasting characters found in modern drama. Practically every aspect about them is a polar opposite, from their gender and background to their outlook towards life.

While every production takes a different approach to these two fascinating characters, playwright Tennessee Williams wanted Blanche and Stanley to be evenly matched, having ‘a balance of power’. The richness of A Streetcar Named Desire’s text is found not necessarily within the plot but within the power struggle between these two icons of modern theatre.

Romanticism versus Reality

They practically begin the play in opposition. Stanley enters first, dressed in blue denim and carrying a blood-stained pack of meat. He’s boisterous as he enters, and he happily tosses the meat to wife Stella—literally ‘bringing home the bacon’. Blanche enters soon after, ‘daintily dressed’ and looking like she’s ‘arriving at a summer tea or cocktail party’ with fine, white clothing. She has taste, but she’s fragile and seems lost. Famously, Williams compares her to a moth in these opening moments.

Much has been made of Stanley’s ‘animalistic’ nature which is in contrast to Blanche’s refined tastes, but practically every aspect of their being is a juxtaposition. Blanche believes in a warm romanticised past that should be preserved, while Stanley believes in a cold, stark realism. Blanche spends the entire play trying to conceal through illusion, whereas Stanley constantly attempts to uncover truth to show reality.

According to Elia Kazan, the original Broadway production’s director, Blanche believes ‘light and culture are dying in the barbaric modern world’, a world Stanley represents. This is highlighted in Blache’s exchange with Mitch, when she says: I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell them what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!’

Even the characters’ background is in opposition. The play is about uncovering the truth about Blanche’s rather complicated past where little is ever known about Stanley’s history (other than his Polish roots and that he served in the US Army during WWII). Even the location of the play’s setting in the French Quarter of New Orleans is a contrast: Blanche comes from a privileged white background, a plantation that would have had an established racial divide, but the play is set in a community that was famously multi-racial—a rare place in America where different races lived, worked and socialised with each other.

Sexuality

While one can find rich contrasts throughout the play, Williams’ offers a rather colourful, complicated one through sex. Yes, the play can be seen as a ‘war of the sexes’ embodied between Blanche and Stanley, but in many ways that is too easy of a reading.

Williams offers something far more complicated here: Streetcar just might be the first major play to perform on Broadway where sexuality was a major theme. All of the major characters of the play have blunt sexual appetites—including the women. In speaking about Stanley, Gore Vidal said that the character ‘changed the concept of sex in America. Before him, no male was considered erotic’. His sexual charge was considered a form of masculine truth, and audiences were enthralled.

Blanche, however, became seen as a ‘nymphomaniac’ and even had the term ‘slut’ branded about. Her name of ‘blanche’, highlighting the concepts of purity and cleanliness, can be seen not as a truth but as irony on her sex life.

Contrasting intents

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these two characters is the fact that neither has evil intent. It is their contrasting natures that lead to inevitable conflict, perhaps brought upon due to their own limited perceptions.

Blanche might be a symbol of a lost elegant world of manners, but she also has moments of cruelty and can be blinded by desire. Stanley has moments of brutality and can lash out, but he also has moments of tenderness and continuously tries to be a good husband and friend by pursuing truth.

Through the dramatic conflict between Blanche and Stanley, theatre is given an explosive confrontation on the battle lines of class, gender and American ideals. Both also desire what the other has: Blanche is attracted to Stanley’s working-class masculinity which she also claims to hate; Stanley is fascinated by Blanche’s qualities of aristocratic arrogance and blatant sexuality, which he also comes to despise.

A Streetcar Named Desire is sparked not by a plot-driven narrative but through the explosive energy that is created through these characters’ constant struggle for supremacy over the other.

© Michael Cox

A Streetcar Named Desire
1st Sep to 7th Oct, 2017.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017 18:14

Who’s your favourite character in Streetcar?

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We asked a school pupil 'Who’s your favourite character in Streetcar?'. Here is what they said:

My favourite character is Mitch because I think he gets a bit of a raw deal in the play and I can’t help feeling sorry for him.

Mitch is a decent human being who is constantly trying to please his mother and is accused by Stanley of being a mummy’s boy because of it.  He maybe resents his mum because he’s been away in the army and travelled a lot, but now he’s stuck at home looking after her. If he does resent her though, he doesn’t really show it. He just does it because it’s his duty which makes me like him because he cares enough to put his own feelings to one side.

Mitch is kind and sensitive and falls in love with Blanche, even though she kind of looks down on him as being  “lesser”  than she is. She just tolerates him, and tries to use him as an escape route from her problems which is not fair. He is a gentleman but she is not a lady, even if she seems to act like one. She manipulates Mitch and toys with him to get what she wants. Mitch is not the hero Blanche thinks she deserves. He’s a bit awkward and worries about being “sweaty”, but that makes me like him even more – he puts himself down too much. He is polite and well liked by his friends and by Stella, but Blanche just takes advantage of his good nature. His interests, like playing poker and working out at the gym are rough and common to Blanche. He was a soldier and now does manual work and she thinks she is superior to him. However, he is really impressed by her glamorous good looks and her classiness.  

Cruelly, Blanche uses the fact that Mitch is in awe of her to play games with him – she tricks him into flattering her and insults his lack of education by teasing him in French. Again this makes me feel sorry for him.  He is the victim of her nastiness, but he is so decent that he continues to be impressed by her. His honest affection for her makes me like him even more. Blanche and Mitch are drawn together because they are both lonely and have both experienced the death of someone they loved. I think, because he has lost another girlfriend it makes Mitch’s affection for Blanche seem more honest and straight-forward, but Blanche is false with him.   She acts as if she is prim and proper trying to trick him into marrying her. She hides the truth about her many sexual partners from him and makes herself out to be more innocent than she is. In a way she makes Mitch feel like a fool but I don’t think he is. It’s not his fault that she is a fantasist. It’s because he is so nice that he can’t see through her.

Mitch’s reaction when Stanley tells him the truth about Blanche’s past is really sad. I can’t help feeling that Stanley was so determined to reveal the truth about Blanche that he doesn’t care at all about his “buddy”  Mitch’s feelings at all. It shows Stanley is much nastier than his friend. Mitch is really upset by what Stanley says and even cries showing that he must have really cared for Blanche. If only Blanche had appreciated that Mitch was a good and decent person,  he could have loved her with the devotion she was looking for. If she had given him a chance, she could have been happy. On the other hand, I’m glad Mitch finds out the truth because probably Blanche would not have been a reliable partner for him.  She didn’t see the goodness in him that I see and she didn’t appreciate his decency so, really,  he deserved better.  I hope he goes on to be happy in life.

© E.F. Lee

A Streetcar Named Desire
1st Sep to 7th Oct, 2017.

Friday, 08 September 2017 07:54

An interview with Gina Isaac

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Michael Cox: What was your first experience with Streetcar?

Gina Isaac: It was watching the Elia Kazan film. I'm a huge Brando fan and absolutely loved the film when I first saw it about 20 years ago. It's an amazing film, and Brando and Vivien Leigh work so well together - the old style meeting the new. I've only ever seen one theatre production of
Streetcar, with a wonderful actress, Geraldine Alexander, playing Blanche. Years later I had the pleasure of working with her on the national tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It was a lovely thing to be able to tell her that I'd seen her play Blanche.

MC: Let’s talk a little more about Blanche. When was the first time you thought of her as a viable character for yourself?

GI: I don't know really. There are always parts that you'd love to play as an actress, and of course Blanche Dubois is definitely 'up there' in terms of the biggies, but it wasn't a part that I felt I had to play. Once I started preparing for the audition though I became totally gripped by her. It's a great feeling when you read a part and something about them speaks to you. I guess that's when I realised I would love the chance to try and play her! Funnily enough, I have been watching a lot of southern and classic films as part of my research, and
Gone with the Wind (also starring Vivien Leigh) was the film that really 'clicked' for the concept of the 'Southern Belle'. It completely captures the old world of white privilege and vast plantations, the world from which both Blanche and Stella descend.

MC: I find that characters can surprise you in rehearsal. Was there a discovery about Blanche that you've made, either in rehearsal or in performance?

GI: Yes, Blanche is full of surprises and I am still in the midst of discovering them. I was struck in rehearsals by just how insightful and wise she is. I hadn't realised that about her before. Blanche sees everything - too clearly. That is why she indulges herself in fantasy and illusion, in order to cope with the pain of life. Blanche can see the turmoil of her sister's situation all too clearly. She has a real awareness of other people's pain.

MC: Has there been a favourite role or production in your career, and has it helped prepare you for taking Streetcar on?

GI: I played Marlene in
Top Girls and strangely I do see some similarities between her and Blanche. They are polar opposites in many ways: a hard-headed business woman and a privileged southern belle; one is running from her roots and the other is desperately clinging to them, but both self-medicate through alcohol and both are striving for something more. Perhaps most importantly, they are both the kind of women that I would love to hang out with...slightly irregular is always more fun.

MC: Is there a role in Streetcar that you yourself identify with? It could be male or female--and it doesn't have to be Blanche.

GI: The characters in 
Streetcar are all so rich and layered that you could identify with facets of all of them at some point. Tennessee Williams's plays are so eloquent and exciting to watch, and I think it's because he manages to capture the light and the dark in all of us. His plays tap into something which helps remind us of how complex we all really are.

MC: Final question: is there a moment within the play that you’re excited to perform before an audience?

GI: Y
es. All of it. I'm not joking...it's a gift of a part.

© Michael Cox

A Streetcar Named Desire
1st Sep to 7th Oct, 2017.

Friday, 01 September 2017 13:14

A Legacy Named Desire

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A Streetcar Named Desire is often regarded as amongst the finest plays of the 20th century, if not of all time, and it is considered by many to be playwright Tennessee Williams' greatest. It is also one of those rare ‘Before/After’ events: the theatre world drastically changed after the play opened on Broadway.

In 1947, the year of Streetcar’s premiere, Broadway was mostly made up of comedies, revivals of classic texts and musicals. The rule of thumb was that audiences wanted to be entertained with flimsy plots and catchy tunes. Streetcar not only challenged that notion but also presented an original experience: a poetic script that teetered between the realistic and the symbolic.

It won numerous prestigious awards, including the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer. Two years later, in 1949, Lawrence Olivier directed the UK premiere in London in a production that thrilled and challenged audiences and critics alike.

Both the Broadway and London runs would shape theatre, not only with its themes and language but also in its characters. Gore Vidal said that Stanley Kowalski ‘changed the concept of sex in America. Before him, no male was considered erotic.’ But Kenneth Tynan went further when writing about Olivier’s production, stating, ‘For the first time in its history, English theatre has been swayed and shaped by America.'

Both the Broadway and London productions enjoyed long, successful runs, and the US and UK would see tours of the production, bringing the play to larger audiences. But its appeal became far more widespread in 1951 when the film version was released.

Getting the iconic play before cinema camera proved difficult. The script had to trim some of the raw language, and the ending had to find a way to punish Stanley. And even when the film was complete, over five minutes worth of cuts had to be made to appease censors—cuts that would not be reinstated until 1993, over 40 years after its release.

But the film became acclaimed, and is now considered an important classic by audience, critics and academics. This is mostly down to the performances the film captures, many of whom were in either the Broadway or London cast. The film is considered to be the first demonstration of ‘method’ acting, depicting ultra-realistic performances and creating a style of acting that would become highly influential the world over. When the Oscars were awarded, the film would win three of the four acting awards, a feat rarely equalled (Brando would lose to Humphrey Bogart for his turn in
The African Queen).

But the film would prove to be the first of many incarnations of the play. Over the years, several ballet companies would depict it—including a recent acclaimed production by Scottish Ballet. An opera premiered in 1995 and would be performed around the world, almost always to acclaim. The story and characters would also serve as a stimulus for artists, many using the themes and characters for inspiration. Famously, Neil Simon would use it when crafting his most celebrated play,
The Odd Couple, pitting a brute versus an effeminate forced to live together, framing all of the action around poker games.

The play itself would have many revivals, attracting some of the best actors to take on some of theatre’s most difficult and challenging roles. And Stanley’s scream of ‘Hey Stella!’ would prove to be an often-repeated iconic moment within pop culture.

But the true legacy of the play is with the world that Williams made. He created flawed, complex characters who challenged the norm, and he presented female characters with sexual appetites. He also introduced a modern poetry spoken in a single voice that the stage hadn’t heard before.

In speaking about the importance of the play, Arthur Miller said that it planted ‘the flag of beauty on the shores of commercial theatre,’ ushering in what is universally considered a golden age of American theatre.

© Michael Cox

A Streetcar Named Desire
1st Sep to 7th Oct, 2017.

Michael Cox speaks with Rapture Theatre’s Michael Emans about their latest production: A Streetcar Named Desire:

Michael Cox: A Streetcar Named Desire is stooped in its New Orleans setting and post-WWII era. Do you think this might be a problem for a modern Scottish audience?

Michael Emans: I think that, although it’s very much set in its time, its themes and its characters and its ideas really resonate an awful lot today, with themes of mental health, with immigration, with race, with cultures, with even human relationships and gender roles. There’s just so much in it that I think it will chime with an audience today. I hope audiences don’t see it as a museum piece—I don’t think they will.

MC: What is it about the work of Tennessee Williams that attracts you as a Director? Is it the language, the plot, the characters…?

ME: Kind of everything, really. I think what’s tremendous is that he’s brought this blend of naturalism and poetry to his work. It’s that wonderful kind of Shakespeareanism with tremendous language and poetry, and it feels very theatrical and so very truthful. I think that’s the challenge of it, and it’s something we’re relishing.

MC: It might be decades old, but it’s still a rich play. It’s very good, but it isn’t easy.

ME: I think that it’s always really good to give the audience a bit of a challenge. It’s not a play that’s very black and white—it’s complex. Not everybody behaves honourably, but not everybody behaves badly. Even Stanley is treated quite badly in some cases within the play. It’s a very rich, complex play, and I think…hope it will challenge people a bit.

MC: This play is something that many people equate to one person: Marlon Brando. Do you find that you have Brando’s legacy hanging over you?

ME: I think given the way we’re going, it’s been easy to forego because we’re going in a different direction, both with the casting choices and concepts. The other thing to consider, I suppose, is the amount of people who are coming to the play fresh. They’ll be seeing our production as their first engagement with the play. So in a way, with more people than you’d think, you’ve got a blank page to work on.

MC: It’s one of those pieces that people think they know until they actually watch it. Right now we’re talking about Brando as Stanley, and yet it’s not his story but Blanche’s.

ME: Well, it is about Blanche. Blanche is the backbone of it—she’s pretty much in every scene. But there are other interesting stories in there too, and I think conveying the narrative and the story development for both Stella and Stanley helps for the narrative of Blanche. And there’s a lovely story with Mitch, too, that I think is quite poignant. The audience may be able to engage with one character more than another, but I think it’s important for every character to have a history and a story within the play. So whether that’s the young collector who comes on or if it’s Blanche, they’ve all got fully formed stories.

MC: You’ve certainly opened up the world of the play with your casting choices.

ME: Well, in the stage directions, Tennessee Williams talks about the mix of people in New Orleans. Different people with different ethnic backgrounds, all mixed together. So what we’ve done is increased that by casting a very eclectic, diverse cast, and it’s shown up some really interesting possibilities within the play.

MC: Were those specific choices you were looking for or did they just make themselves known when you were looking at certain people?

ME: I think it was something we were open to, but ultimately it was about getting the best people for the part. That was the overriding thing: to get the best people, regardless of anything else. But by opening that possibility up, it’s really borne fruit for us, so it’s been a really interesting process.

© Michael Cox

A Streetcar Named Desire
1st Sep to 7th Oct, 2017.

Sean Scanlan: The Stuff of Life

At drama school, one of the key lessons we learnt was to form your own ideas and theatrical tastes you had to watch and engage with as many forms of theatre as you could.
It was on one of my many student trips to the theatre that I visited the Donmar Warehouse to see The Life of Stuff by Simon Donald. This was before the Donmar became the star-laden hothouse that attracted Gwyneth Palthrow and Nicole Kidman and way before the time when the Donmar’s artistic director, Sam Mendes, was to helm the latest Bond movie.

This particular play was set in a gangland Scotland and featured the sort of cast (Douglas Henshall, Forbes Masson, Stuart McQuarrie and Mabel Aitken) that many a director would give their right teeth for now.
This show was the first time I saw Sean Scanlan on stage. He had a gift for language, was totally “grounded” and possessed a real hutzpah that made him a compelling and exciting performer.
On leaving drama school, I marked out Sean as someone I wanted to direct, and subsequent engagement with his high quality work only fuelled this ambition further. However, touring theatre is not always attractive for performers and my first few attempts at luring Sean onto a “Rapture” stage were politely and warmly declined. 

In a recent interview with Joyce McMillan, she wrote that Rapture had a “self-imposed distance from the creative centre of a Scottish theatre scene often driven by the energy of current writers and the pursuit of ever newer kinds of new work.”

It struck me as odd at the time that creativity, and indeed the creative centre, was associated with new work and current writers. Indeed, the fact that Joyce and her fellow critics have awarded ‘Best Production’ in their yearly CATS awards over the last two years to productions of plays by Beckett and Brecht does suggest that the ‘new’ does not always equate to overall quality.

I would suggest that perhaps there is no such thing as the ‘new’ or ‘original’ and, also conversely, that all creative work is ‘original’. For example, the acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has openly admitted to the films that have influenced his brand of original filmmaking. Also Shakespeare, one of this country’s legendary playwrights, was often influenced by stories and indeed other playwrights of the time when writing his plays. Both Tarantino and Shakespeare are seen as innovators, yet were they really original?

Conversely, when you read Hamlet, on the page it is ‘Shakespeare’s Hamlet’, yet when you direct or act in the play it becomes ‘original’ –that is because it becomes ‘your Hamlet’. It is infused with your creative DNA, your artistic decisions and your imaginative impulse. It is now new, original, creative and yours! Perhaps we should substitute the word ‘new’ or ‘original’ with ‘authentic’; authentic to you and your creative impulse, whether you are you or Tarantino or Shakespeare.

There is often a pressure in the Scottish Theatre scene to be heralded as ‘innovative’, ‘new’, ‘original’, etc. Theatre companies see that critics and funding bodies get excited about a sense of innovation, of daring to be different, of new writing and supposedly fresh ideas. As a result, they sometimes throw the innovation and the politically correct box ticking ‘kitchen sink’ at their project in an attempt to tick the funders’ box and tickle the critics’ pallet.

This, I feel, is actually counter-productive to being genuinely creative and authentic. Time and again audiences delight in seeing a director marry his or her genuine and authentic artistic impulse to an existing classic text than to a one who gets themselves tied up in site-specific, multi-art form, devised, new work knots.

So let’s all aim to be authentic and true to our own artistic selves. There ensues the true creative centre—the creative centre that exists in all of us.

 

Monday, 08 August 2016 11:11

Democratising Theatre

In the classic Scottish play The Steamie the characters compare the experience of the community gathering on the green to dry their washing to the prospect of having your own washing machines in your own house. The young character is looking forward to having her own machine – as she would never have to leave her house, whilst the others lament the passing of the idea of  “community”, illustrated by everyone gathering on the green.

To me theatre and in particular touring theatre is essential to create and nurture that sense of community and its sense of community that we desperately need in this increasingly fractured world. We live in a world where arguably people spend more time on their phones than engaging directly with each other, and in a world where people feel isolated and that they have no one to relate to or engage with.

Theatre brings together a community, even just for one evening. It places complete strangers under one roof and compels them to engage, not just with each other but with the two hours traffic of the stage. It encourages them to see themselves not as individuals but as part of a bigger picture –it compels them to empathise with the emotional journey of the characters they are watching.

Taking theatre out beyond the main cities into smaller towns and villages encourages people to engage who may have been put off by the distance to or the ticket prices of the main city venues. In our next tour with Democracy you will see the same show whether you are going to the Theatre Royal in Glasgow or the Theatre Royal in Dumfries. You should have the same experience in The Kings in Edinburgh or The Village Theatre in East Kilbride --- in a sense we are ‘Democratising’ Theatre.

There is a view that touring theatre has lost its political heft and its energy since the days of the lauded 80’s and 90’s theatre companies: Wildcat, 7:84, Borderline etc. However touring theatre, I feel, is more needed now then ever, partly for the reasons above. It’s just that now, in the “Nachos and Netflix” culture, we have to work much harder to draw people away from their laptops and into the theatre.

The days of the ‘out of the back of the van, rough and ready, two planks and a passion theatre’ perhaps have given way to a theatre that has to be sophisticated but accessible, nuanced but entertaining, challenging but satisfying, intellectual but unpretentious. When people can stream the latest high quality drama to their phones or binge on box sets of classic series –we have to offer them something they wont get on their laptop; Theatre that is not just the same high quality drama they can receive on their phone, but that it has the one crucial ‘ingredient’ that a million downloads won’t have –its live and its happening now in front of them. That energy and rapture of live performance can be intoxicating and creates a sense of a community coming together and sharing the same life affirming experience.

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