Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Phoenix Theatre

Zainab, Tender Youth Board member

The new Streetcar Named Desire production, performed recently at the Phoenix Theatre, was, to put it bluntly, dangerously compelling.

A stellar cast all around, with Paul Mescal starring as Stanley and Patsy Ferran as Blanche, the play unravels as a visceral exploration of victimhood vs victimisation.

Characters within the play are shown variously as both victims and perpetrators. Blanche falls victim to the sexual whims and hypocrisies of the men in her community; yet she too behaves inappropriately with teenage boys in a desperate, obsessive love-letter to her own lost youth. Having experienced his violence, Stella chooses to disbelieve or simply overlook the atrocities committed by Stanley against Blanche – she would rather not ‘rock the boat’ on her marriage than side with a victim of rape.

Stella repeatedly rejecting any notion of ‘help’ from Blanche after being hit by Stanley in public forces the audience to ask: how do we think – and talk – about victims of violence who are not entirely helpless and who choose to stay in abusive relationships? Those who reject the very notion of being ‘victims’ at all? We are not given easy answers.

Stanley initially comes across as a figure of Eros – Mescal plays him with carnal sensuality, at first smooth, then restless and temperamental and finally, terrifying. But Stanley’s behaviour, his actions and the motives behind them, are all steeped in a patriarchal mindset which itself was upheld by mid-20th century American law. Concepts such as the oft-quoted ‘Napoleonic Code’ reaffirmed the right of husbands to have physical, legal and financial control over their wives. Stanley was raised to believe, and the contemporary rule of law governing his country was maintaining, that what belonged to his wife, indeed belonged to him. It almost seems inevitable that he would develop a vendetta against Blanche for losing what he felt was his inheritance.

The final spotlight was on the audience ourselves. What are we witnessing before us, and what language will we use to speak about all of this when it is over? Whose tragedy do we focus on when we are watching a play that deals with rape, domestic violence, racism and constitutional misogyny (to name just a few of the horrors that this play explored)?

The idea of invasion was also subtly played on throughout the performance. The sensory experience of the audience was invaded by the sudden, piercing rattling of drums. In the midst of a nervous breakdown, Blanche begins to hallucinate music playing around her – yet the audience also hears this. We are with her, in her private moments; we hear what she hears, in real time. Her privacy, for better or worse, is invaded by us. Blanche herself invades the conventional boundary between the stage and auditorium by walking among the audience members in the final haunting minutes of the performance.

This was a production that boldly, shamelessly demanded attention – with screeching drums punctuating crucial scenes and heavy rain pouring onto the stage, barely leaving the audience unmarked. Indeed, few people must have left the theatre after watching this performance feeling unaffected.

Image credit: Marc Brenner