The happiness of the Whingers depends on a lot of things when they visit a theatre: good sightlines, brevity, amusement and a competitively priced bar. But unlike Blanche Dubois they do not seek or expect kindness from strangers (or friends for that matter). Indeed, it is a word that rarely features in their limited vocabularies.
Brevity may also have been in somewhat short supply at the Donmar Warehouse on Monday when we dropped in to see Rob Ashford‘s production of Tennessee Williams‘s Pulitzer Prize winning classic A Streetcar Named Desire: it lumbers in at at a massive three hours. But for once the Whingers had struck lucky in the advance booking ticket lottery that the Donmar organises for its “friends” and for the first time in yonks we weren’t sitting to the side of the thrust stage but at the front, where the critics get to sit (in fact Mark Lawson or his Doppelgänger was in front of us). And boy what a difference it made!
What a welcome change not looking at the back of people’s heads or seeing actors masking each other. It was proof – if proof were needed – that the proscenium arch exists for the very good reason that theatre works best when everyone is viewing it from roughly the same direction.
With their front-on view the Whingers could fully appreciate yet another excellent design from Christopher Oram with New Orleans’ wrought iron balconies extending round the Donmar’s own circle although they did doubt whether some of the audience in the side seats could even see the thrilling, vertiginous spiral staircase. In fact there may have been some benefit to sitting there – neither Whinger is very good with heights and they were feeling a little queasy on behalf of the actors having to descend the rather wobbly staircase. But sightline-wise, goodness knows how little the poor folk at the sides could see when the curtain between the living area and the kitchen was drawn. Still, we didn’t really care as we were in the good seats for once.
Anyway, Oram’s spectacularly vertical set is complemented by some excellent atmospheric lighting by Neil Austin.
Now Rob Ashford struck the Whingers as an odd choice for director: most of his credits are musicals and Academy and Tony Awards’ production numbers. The Whingers were half-expecting something akin to Oh, Streetcar!, the brilliant musical spoof in The Simpsons. Happily (or depending on which way you look at it, sadly) this was not the case and the Whingers found themselves gripped anew by the story-telling. That said, we can’t help feeling that the musical Mister Ashford may have over-compensated somewhat as Mister Williams’ work has been pretty brutally de-camped.
This Blanche Dubois is – for the Whingers’ tastes at any rate – rather too devoid of grotesqueness. And she is so not-bonkers that when they come to take her away to the loony bin in the final scene the Whingers were rather appalled as there really didn’t seem to be anything wrong with her – certainly nothing which would seem to be out of place in either of the Whingers’ households, anyway.
But we get ahead of ourselves. For those with no cultural compass Blanche Dubois (Rachel Weisz) is the fading, well-rung Southern belle who is visiting her sister Stella (Ruth Wilson, excellent) and brutish husband Stanley Kowalski (Elliot Cowan – also excellent, but alarmingly muscular, below with Ruth Wilson) for the first time in years.
Cramped together in their two room apartment Blanche’s disturbed, affected plantation-owning demeanour upsets the working class Stanley who can’t wait to get rid of her, but not until he has discovered how Blanche has come to “lose” the family estate, Belle Reve, and hopefully recover something from the wreckage.
Weisz (left) is surprisingly effective as Blanche. Actually, we aren’t sure why we just wrote “surprisingly”. Why shouldn’t she be good just because she’s been in those mummy movies? She’s utterly compelling and believable but, of course, had the Whingers been at the helm she would have been a lot more bonkers.
But now, here’s a question we pondered deeply over a quick (we didn’t get out until 10.30) glass of wine afterwards: are the Blance Dubois’s getting younger these days or are the Whingers just getting older? Or both?
It’s hard to see Weisz as the faded beauty that Williams has skulking in the shadows and dimming the lights. She looks in her prime at 38 which surprisingly (to us) is the same age that Vivien Leigh and Jessica Tandy were when they played Blanche in the film and original Broadway production respectively. Didn’t people seemed older in those days or was it just because we were younger? Incredibly it appears that Blanche Dubois is actually only meant to be 28 (although the programme says the play is set in 1949, two years later than the original staging in 1947, so should we add two years?). The usually reliable Wikipedia says Blanche was born in 1919.
For the record: Glenn Close was 55 when she gave her Blanche at the National in 2002, Jessica Lange 48 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 1997, Claire Bloom was a mere spring chicken of 43 at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1974.
But frankly it was the Whingers’ beauty that was fading in the Donmar at Monday’s preview. Had Rob Ashford had the air-conditioning turned off to recreate the oft-referred-to steamy temperatures of New Orleans? As Stanley says, “temperature 100 on the nose”. It was certainly air-cooled in the bar and it’s a credit to the production that after an hour and three quarters sweltering in the auditorium during the first act that the Whingers dragged themselves back from the deliciously cool bar for more.
Perhaps it was the privilege of being in the good seats, but the Whingers emerged feeling that they had witnessed a most stylish production. The only fly in the ointment for Phil was Blanche’s going-away outfit – the pale yellow dress nipped in at the waist under a Della Robbia-blue jacket topped off by Weisz’s black hair in forties style reminded him of Snow White. Would the strangers delivering kindness be dwarfs? A very strange dream-filled night ensued.
Anyhoo here’s Vivien Leigh’s Academy Award winning Blanche doing the famous line.