REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire

When watching Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Emma Jordan at Belfast's Lyric Theatre, I see the influencer of what must surely be over a thousand works and the source of a multitude of mishaps – iconic, intelligent and idiosyncratic theatre. This isn't a narrative by nature of trial and error, but error in trial – the exercising and development of a solitary worldview in contrast to another, and another, and another.

Like Streetcar's much more recent cousin, Clint Eastwood's still marvellous Gran Torino, the titular car is not so much a vehicle for the road as a driving force for the character at the very centre of the piece, a rather blunt but crucial metaphor.

That character would be Blanche DuBois ("White Wood" – and the set, another Ciaran Bagnall masterpiece, seems made of it), portrayed by Aoibheann McCann in one of the performances of the year to date. To say that she’s not an easy person to like on first sight is an understatement. Her bragging exterior hides all sorts of insecurities that no one fully believes her about, regardless of how the loss of her family home might have affected her. But, blood being thicker than water and all that, her sister Stella (Meghan Tyler, compelling) is more than happy to take her in. Her brother-in-law Stanley (Mark Huberman, a tour de force), a war-ravaged soul with a berserk button that could go off at any moment, is less forgiving.

Streetcar is a challenge for Jordan, partly because of how Williams’ values could come across in present day society. But in approaching this still sublime work through the prism of mental health and lost youth (the main actors are younger than those in most contemporary productions of the play), Jordan and assistant director Emily Foran draw from the especially verbose material a uniquely lively and fractured humanity, punctuated effectively by bursts of good humour. Blanche is an exercise in contrast, image versus truth, her personal nuances gradually emerging in front of everyone to the point where she must work hard to earn trust. A strain we feel as much as she does.

Whether we like Blanche or not – Stella is much easier to like, and admire, for the way she keeps taking the hard knocks in a tough marriage – isn’t the issue. It's that we recognise the problems. How tolerant can you be of your sibling's, and as Stella will find, your other half's, ways, before they really push you over the edge? Telling Stella that she’s as "plump as a little partridge" while her sister’s amiable perkiness is dissolving under the cloud of an impending pregnancy isn’t going to win Blanche any friends. We know it, but does she?

The object of Blanche’s affection, Mitch (a superb Seamus O'Hara) is easily won over by her charms, making the eventual discovery of her troubled past that much harder to take for him. It is as simple as a spell being broken by what initially appears to be idle gossip only for everything to make sense once the lover takes time to reflect all aspects of his loved one’s behaviour. Now that is hard-hitting.

As with Gran Torino, it is not so much Streetcar's various misadventures and comedy that dazzle - however entertaining and witty they are - as its inner meaning. Leaving the Lyric, one is as shattered by the experience as the main characters are, pondering the cost of living, equating success of satisfaction, the value of relying on little pleasures to keep going, and how much, and what kind, of a legacy we will leave behind. Will we know? Will we care? Will anyone else? The effectiveness and elegance of this Streetcar Named Desire is almost too much to take – and really can't be commended enough.

Simon Fallaha

A Streetcar Named Desire runs at Belfast's Lyric Theatre until Saturday June 8.

Photography: Johnny Frazer.

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