Donmar production given high marks

Tennessee Williams has had a rough ride on Broadway in recent seasons, with major revivals of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” all struggling to find much critical favor despite the star wattage of their casts.

“Streetcar” was last seen on the Rialto in 2005, in a tepidly received staging with Natasha Richardson, John C. Reilly and Amy Ryan. The play is due for a high-profile Off Broadway run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, when Liv Ullman’s production for the Sydney Theater Company, starring Cate Blanchett as Blanche DuBois, transfers for a limited engagement Nov. 27-Dec. 20.

American choreographer-turned-director Rob Ashford’s revival for the Donmar Warehouse, headlined by Rachel Weisz, opened Tuesday to the kind of raves that invariably spark talk of transfer potential. But would that be too many Blanches depending on the kindness of strangers?

Here’s what the London critics said:

  • Declaring the show “London’s finest Tennessee Williams production in 15 years,” Variety‘s David Benedict called Weisz “mesmerizing” while heaping equal praise on the entire cast. “The sustained emotional depth of this fearless Donmar revival reminds you not just that Williams was a master, but that this really is his masterpiece,” he concluded.

  • The Evening Standard’s Henry Hitchings called this “Streetcar” a “resonantly modern tragedy” to which Weisz’s performance is the key. “She shows her range as she shifts between sultry flirtiness, light chatter, fevered reminiscence and squawky hysteria. Her Blanche is Cleopatra by way of Miss Havisham.”

  • Lauding the production as the best “Streetcar” he has ever seen, the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer gave serious kudos to the chemistry between Weisz and Elliot Cowan’s Stanley. “Watching these two together is like watching an untamed beast cruelly toying with its prey,” wrote Spencer, adding that the pairing creates “a simmering tension that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.”

  • The Times’ Benedict Nightingale was absorbed by Weisz’s performance, which he deemed more charismatic than recent efforts on London stages by Glenn Close and Jessica Lange: Her Blanche “has the intelligence, the wry humor, the yearning for love and the capacity to express it, the warmth and the radiance thwarted by circumstances: indeed, the key qualities that make her Williams’ most striking creation.”

  • The Guardian’s Michael Billington was more reserved, stating that he left the play “impressed without being quite overwhelmed.” The critic commended the supporting players but questioned Ashford’s production, “which is often stronger on externals than the drama’s inner core.”

  • The Independent’s Michael Coveney was less admiring overall, partly blaming the British cast’s problematic grasp of New Orleans accents for making them seem detached from Williams’ music. However, Coveney praised Christopher Oram’s set design as a “welcome variation” and Adam Cork’s music as “a mini-masterpiece of atmospheric yearning.”

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