The surprise of the Donmar Warehouse revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire” is that, in director Rob Ashford’s assured and stealthy hands, a play famously about an unbalanced mind turns out to be all about balance. Ashford has a mesmerizing, flame-like Blanche DuBois in Rachel Weisz, but he reveals the drama to be about not one but all four principal characters. Together they restore what’s been missing from countless recent stagings of “Streetcar”: wrenching, edge-of-your-seat tension. The result is London’s finest Tennessee Williams production in 15 years.
Every actress capable of a Southern accent wants to play Blanche. But too many of those who do are cast late in their career. On this side of the pond, Jessica Lange was 47 when she played her, while Glenn Close was 55. Blanche is supposed to be no more than 38. This isn’t ungallant nit-picking, it’s crucial.
It’s not just that Blanche’s continued fatal attraction to young men is much less far-fetched with, as here, an actress of exactly the right age seducing the boy from the Evening Star paper. Blanche’s determination to start afresh makes real sense when she first arrives to stay with married sister Stella (Ruth Wilson). Shaky and in too much need of alcohol she may be but, for once, she really might overcome her demons. Thus, instead of merely reaching a foregone conclusion, the final collapse of hope renders her character genuinely tragic and upsetting.
Ashford’s casting also corrects the other mistake routinely made. Elliot Cowan’s prowling, seriously sexy Stanley may attack Blanche with the line “We’ve had this date since the beginning,” but they’ve only had one complete scene alone together, and this is it. What drives the play — and, in part, Stanley’s fury — is the interdependency of Blanche, Stella and Mitch (Barnaby Kay).
Blanche describes Stanley as an ape, but this production realizes that taking her at her (usually evasive) word can be misleading. Muscle-bound Cowan’s Stanley has the mocking, peacock strut of a man led entirely by his physical, sexual power. It’s abundantly clear not only why so sensuous a Stella as Wilson has married him, but why she is thrilled, and embarrassed, that she did.
But Cowan’s physical heft and vocal strength — even when he suddenly lets rip, he’s scarily in control — give high contrast to flashes of little-boy-lost in a world he fears to lose.
Ultimately, a similar sense of loss underpins Kay’s puzzled Mitch. Again, casting rebalances the difficult equation. A younger Blanche makes her affectation of virginity far more plausible, stops Mitch appearing less gullible and makes Stella’s keenness on their match a possibility genuinely worth entertaining.
The fact that Weisz and Wilson really do look and behave like sisters — their rhythms are touchingly similar — helps tether Blanche to the unwelcome (to her) reality of Stella’s New Orleans life.
Christopher Oram’s immensely tall, dark, wrought-iron set of the home astonished Blanche considers to be something to which “only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do justice” is filled with atmosphere but audaciously bare. And the easeful physicality with which the characters move through the two cramped rooms creates a vivid sense of lives lived in them.
Neil Austin’s carefully contrasted, haze-filled lighting subtly opens up the spaciousness of nights outdoors and ramps up the claustrophobia of a sweaty card game, but Ashford’s background as a choreographer pays dividends when it comes to conveying the play’s all-important sense of heat. Instead of cliched dabbing of handkerchiefs, these characters — so used to but tired of the heat — convey stickiness and sweat through the speed and weight with which they move. Gone too are physical affectations of supposedly Southern graces complete with overmodulated accents.
Ashford adds further atmosphere via Adam Cork’s soundscore, which marries Williams’ stage directions of thematic music to both natural and abstracted sounds, especially during between-scene transitions. Tension, so crucial to this interpretation, is never allowed to drop.
Creating so vivid and compelling a world allows Weisz’s Blanche to rise in power. This is a woman whose self-deception makes her spiral frighteningly into believing her own lie.
Like a cannibal, Weisz feeds off the atmosphere she creates as she deliberately blurs abhorred reality by filling the bathroom with steam. But the more she ties herself up in her own equivocations, the more her mind unravels. Her very skin seems too tender. When Stella spills lemon Coke on her, her yelp is scalding. As she starts to drown in dissembling and danger, her throat seems to close and her breathing becomes terrifyingly shallow and rasping.
Ashford perhaps slightly overplays his hand by literally bringing on the ghosts of Blanche’s terrible past one too many times, but even that choice makes sense within the production as a whole.
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.