Maxine Peake’s leading performance in Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was a highly anticipated and coveted affair – and for very good reason.
Williams’ play, which will be at The Royal Exchange Theatre until 15 October, tells the tale of Blanche DuBois’ unravelling character when visiting her sister, Stella, in her New Orleans home.
The stifling summer heat juxtaposes the often icy reception created by the tense frustrations between Blanche and Stella’s husband, Stanley. As the summer passes, dark secrets come to light and an overwhelming anxiety envelopes the play’s structure.
The layout of the Royal Exchange only enhances the viewing experience. The almost hexagonal shape of the stage, with actors utilising all stage doors, enables the audience to have a multifaceted view of the intensely thrilling play.
The initial stage set-up is simple and understated; reverberating the hostile and almost dilapidated location which Blanche enters.
The laughter, generated by Blanche’s abrupt sense of humour, lightens the often tense atmosphere created by the darker problems which weave in and out of the play’s central plot.
Blanche’s drinking problem, which appears light-hearted and humorous, rapidly escalates and becomes one of the many contributing factors to her mental demise. The dark, ominous presence that accompanies her on stage when she drinks only intensifies as the play continues. With the number of bodies multiplying as Blanche throws back more liquor, the voices which whisper ‘hey, sugar’ become eerie, almost frightening.
Stanley Kowalski, played by Ben Batt, is aggressive and exhibits several violent outbursts against his pregnant wife, Stella. While these may be difficult to watch at times, the sudden change from a light-hearted atmosphere effectively shows the turbulence in the Kowalski relationship.
While the issue of domestic violence is raised during an almost electric encounter, the theme of violence against women is a prevalent one within the play. Whether there is trouble between friendly neighbours Eunice and Steve Hubbel, or between Blanche and potential beau Harold Mitchell (‘Mitch’), female vulnerability rears its ugly head.
Overall, Peake’s performance of Blanche is breathtaking. Peake demonstrates the fragility and exposure of Blanche’s character with ease. From her put-together appearance – pencil skirt and Louis Vuitton suitcase included, to the increasingly dishevelled barefoot and dressing gown attire – Peake visually represents her character’s disintegration into panic and hysteria.
Reunited with Director, Sarah Frankcom following their critically acclaimed production of ‘Hamlet’, Frankcom and Peake take on Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-Prize winning masterpiece, and execute it perfectly.
TNT Arts & Culture Alexia Hendrickson