The latest in the Sarah Frankom and Maxine Peake partnership at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, is Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning A Streetcar Named Desire. Running from 8th September until 15 October 2016, Peake’s endless run of golden roles continues as she takes on the infamous Blanche Dubois. Peake was backed by Shameless’ Ben Batt as Stanley, Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Stellaaaa and Youssef Kerkour as Mitch.
It seems to be a given nowadays that Peake will give an intense and outstanding performance, and she did not disappoint. Her Blanche was sharper and less naïve than others, which made it harder to witness her complete disintegration and loss of control on her life.
The staging showed just the one smoky, grubby room making the performance feel longer (the first half could have been shorter) and suffocating. A single glass partition to a bathroom showed a lack of privacy, or somewhere to hide. Green felt was carpeted throughout, transforming the performance into one huge game of poker between Blanche and Stanley, neither willing to put all their cards on the table, both desperately holding face and both constantly goading for the other to crack.
I couldn’t help but feel that this production was a more sympathetic representation of Stanley. Batt’s no-nonsense straight-talking got the majority of the laughs from the audience (presumably the males in the audience...), which are hugely appreciated in a lengthy play, designed to be claustrophobic and uncomfortable. But it felt wrong to me that he was engaging the audience in such a way, perhaps this audience was unfamiliar with the final scenes.
Perhaps because of this less impressive Stanley, the rape scene was anticlimactic. It seemed jarring that Stanley would rape Blanche after he seems only to have been mildly disgusted by her throughout, their relationship until now had ironically been entirely void of desire.
Strangely, Blanche is put in a prom dress and stranger still, a blonde wig. A symbol of her clinging to her youth and reliving her troubled past with her husband perhaps. I expected a more raw depiction from the Peake and Frankom team; the artful approach was well done but not as hard-hitting as it should’ve been. Post-rape scene was… another odd decision. As Blanche lies on the floor after Stanley leaves her, a team of cleaning crew enter and spend a good five minutes vacuuming, cleaning up the set and packing her belongings away.
I find myself making the hopeful argument that this was deliberately to show the sad everyday occurrence rape has become in our society, or that it was Blanche’s personality being packed away back into hiding, the same way she bottled up her emotions before she came to New Orleans, or even just that it was leading into what was to come, the whitewashed rooms of an institution that lay ahead of her; but the moments after the scene simply needed more time to have an impact. It needed minutes of silence for us to just watch Blanche be still and absorb what had happened to her.
Despite this, it felt like trauma was given quite close attention in this version of Streetcar. Blanche was haunted by some additions to the cast, an almost Day of the Dead styled chorus in black elaborate clothes and roses who appeared whenever she drank or thought of her troubled past.
The play’s genius ambiguity is not lost with this production, it’s hard to tell whether Blanche really does need professional help or whether it is the cruelty of Stanley and the patriarchal society that he represents that are pivotal to the hand Blanche is ultimately dealt.