Theatre review: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast
A Streetcar Named Desire
Lyric Theatre, Belfast 2019
Written by Tennessee Williams
Director: Emma Jordan
Cast: Aoibhéann McCann, Mark Huberman, Meghan Tyler, Seamus O'Hara, Richard Croxford, Christopher Grant, Sean Kearns, Julie Maxwell, Abigail McGibbon
Just last week, watching The Glass Menagerie at the Gate Theatre in Dublin, I was considering the legacy of Tennessee Williams's plays and their longevity, despite them seeming to be restricted to a very specific time and place. It's hard to imagine Williams taken out of that American deep south environment, not least for the importance of how the dialogue is delivered in that southern drawl. Even the National Theatre's modernised production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof earlier this year had to recognise that as restriction, even if they were able to put it to good use in Benedict Andrew's production.
The compensating factors that keep all Tennessee Williams's plays relevant and good theatre are the universal possibilities offered in his view of a deeper human condition, in the structural strengths of the plays and the opportunities that the characters offer for dramatic interpretation. As if to prove the point of where Williams works and where it can go wrong, the Lyric Theatre's A Streetcar Named Desire showed precisely where those strengths and weaknesses lie.
Certainly as far as social matters are concerned, Streetcar touches on a number of social and personal issues that are still being grappled with today; the unequal balance between men and women in relationships and in society; the dangers and disappointments that a woman faces who tries to claim equal status, express herself, even believe she has liberty to do so. The play also deals with the prevalence of 'toxic masculinity' and the weakness of character that underlies it, and how those insecurities can transform quickly into violence, often against women.
Whether that remains rooted in the heat of the Deep South in New Orleans, whether its set in the 1950s or not, those issues are still recognisable to an audience today, so there's no special adjustments that need to be made; it's a constant and unfortunately it looks like it always be. Indeed, the fact that we don't seen to be that much further along only seems to justify showing the work in its original period setting.
What you can't do then is pull your punches and try to gloss over the brutality at the heart of the play in the words, in the sentiments, the actions and sexual violence that takes place in Streetcar, and unfortunately Emma Jordan's production is a little reticent and discreet about putting that across on stage to a Belfast audience.
It's true that Tennessee Williams can be a little American Gothic and overwrought, and it can lead to overblown performances and caricatures, but really it's in those grotesque characters that a deeper truth comes out, and downplaying it is counterproductive. Whether it was the directing - and if it was it's a rare misstep for Jordan - or the acting performances not pushing it far enough, this Streetcar was seriously lacking in heat and fire.
Ciaran Bagnall's set designs are impressive, giving an indication of the claustrophobic conditions in which Stanley and Stella Kowalski live in a state of perpetual tension, but it's a mutually acceptable one that keeps their relationship burning. It's only when Stella's sister Blanche DuBois arrives that the cracks begin to show. The streetcar that rattles through this uncomfortable situation is strangely silent here however, only passing through at the start and end of the play.
Within this environment, Jordan settles for a measured delivery that allows the words, their meaning and implication to be heard and, daringly, she even allows some silences to increase discomfort and tension, but it doesn't work. Without the requisite pace and slow-burn fury it feels detached and lifeless. It needs, dare I say it, more aggression. Here, Jordan allows the violence only to be suggested, discreetly fading to black in the most troubling scenes.
Within this restriction of holding back somewhat, the acting performances are nonetheless good. Aoibhéann McCann captures a sense of Blanche's determination and fragility at coming face-to-face with the reality of her circumstances, and the inevitable breakdown that comes when she attempts to overcome them. Subtlety works on her part as she is trying to work around the barriers that society, masculinity, gossip and reputation throw up against her. There's a good performance also from Seamus O'Hara as Mitch, a figure who likewise struggles personally but is too weak to fight against the same forces.
As the representatives of those forces of the status quo, in Stanley's aggression and Stella's acceptance of it, I would have liked much more fire and energy from Mark Huberman and Meghan Tyler - yes, even taking it to caricature rather than try and find any deeper subtlety or identification with the characters. The final scene is agonising in the way that it should be, so there's something there, just not enough of it. It goes some way to addressing the impact needed to make the play relevant, but how it reduces Blanche to that state isn't adequately demonstrated beforehand. A Streetcar Named Desire cannot and should not be sanitised and made safe for audiences; its uncomfortable aspects must be shown if they are to be confronted.