Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; March 31, 2015
Ballet may or may not be able to portray mothers-in-law but there is one spoken gem from Tennessee Williams’ original 1947 play that this production cannot do justice to: when Blanche DuBois, who is trying to find her way to her new home with Stanley and Stella, is directed to Desire via the Cemeteries and Elysian Fields tram stops. Crude allegory it may be, but it sets the tone for Williams’ trademark melodrama, personified by the unstable Blanche.
Much of the area where Williams set his play (the tram stops were real) was devastated by Hurricane Katrina a decade ago when the levees in New Orleans failed and nearly 2,000 people died in the ensuing storm surge along the southern and south-eastern seaboard. This makes Williams’ work seem even more of a period piece, his characters like flies trapped in slowly solidifying amber.
This is not the first ballet version: a Canadian production was mounted five years after the play opened on Broadway and a year after the Elia Kazan film. The scores for both the film and the Montreal ballet version were by the same composer, incidentally. John Neumeier staged a version in Frankfurt in 1983 and this Scottish Ballet production dates from 2012, the result of a collaboration with theatre and film director Nancy Meckler and choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
While this may not be the first attempt at producing this text, I am confident in stating that, without seeing the others, it is likely to be by far the best. This production comes as close to perfection that I have ever seen in any theatrical performance. Everything is right: lighting, score, libretto, pace and stunning performances, both from the principals and the ensemble. It is well run in now and is seamlessly slick, riveting the audience throughout.
Eve Mutso’s Blanche is no frail southern belle. Right from the beginning when she slowly rotates centre stage, reaching up to the light in self-absorbed misery, we see that she is a damaged woman. Her failed marriage, doomed at the outset by a homosexual husband and his subsequent suicide, results in the loss of her ante bellum ancestral home which we see literally collapsing behind her in Niki Turner’s superb set. In vain she tries to imprison the images of her wedding photographs in her memory but the guests collapse, as if they, like her husband have been felled by a bullet and they roll offstage like human tumbleweed leaving her alone with a suitcase.
Like the train in Anna Karenina, the eponymous streetcar is ever present, here represented in Peter Salem’s evocative score and Tim Mitchell’s subtle lighting. The passengers gradually close in on Blanche until she finally spills into the bowling alley and the dysfunctional Kowalski home where abused sister Stella is alternately fascinated and repelled by the child/man Stanley.
Blanche is a complex woman and Mutso manages to evoke a fair bit of sympathy for her. Williams shows that there is really no place for passionate women in late 1940’s America: Stella ends up trapped in a love/hate relationship with a brutish, dependent husband; Blanche makes futile attempts to cloak her sexuality in a veneer of southern belle refinement. Mitch, the other male protagonist, is not much better. Weak and gauche, he is totally incapable of dealing with the real woman that confronts him as she does not match up to his ideal of demure, virginal perfection.
There are several theatrical devices that work brilliantly: as well as the ever-present streetcar (clang, clang clang goes the trolley!), Blanche’s fantasy in the bath literally takes place in a bath, whirled around the stage on a truck and, best of all, she persuades Mitch to shade the stark, bare light bulb in a paper globe to the accompaniment of the strains of Harold Arlen’s 1933 song It’s Only a Paper Moon with its poignant line “…it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me…” Later, having been told about Blanche’s sexual history by Stanley, Mitch rips the shade to shreds, literally and figuratively removing the cover and forcing Blanche into the light.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s choreography is so right that it simply blends into the drama, its challenges melding with the characterisation. It provides a vehicle for powerfully acted performances from everyone. The concentration and intensity of every single performance is palpable. It is almost as if one suddenly notices that characters are dancing, their emotions being wrenched out of them into their bodies, then dissipating from their extremities. This is contrasted by social dancing, restrained at Blanche’s wedding and raunchy in the bar where Blanche has drunken visions of her late husband.
Blanche’s admixture of horror and fascination with Stanley culminates in an onstage rape (only really suggested in the original text). Cleverly, Stanley dons a loose robe having stripped to his underpants and this partly shields Blanche from the audience, making the action even more horrific. Mutso’s legs tremble and her arms wrap around her head in emotional agony before she collapses in a pitiful heap.
Erik Cavallari’s Stanley is extraordinary. He conveys both macho menace and child-like vulnerability not to mention having a way of stripping off his kit that is worthy of a Levi’s ad. Director Nancy Meckler uses vocalisation sparingly and effectively. There is shouting in the near-ruck at the bowling alley as voices create and release the tension, and then the famous howl as Stanley calls despairingly for Stella after he has assaulted her, encapsulating the tragedy of two people whose need for each other is totally destructive.
It is impossible to convey adequately how Meckler and Lopez Ochoa manage the scene where Blanche simply cannot comprehend why her sister would return to Stanley after the assault. It is both and neither dance and mime, the drama somehow embodied so that the text becomes physical. We see Blanche sitting upstage knowing that they are sharing the frenzied sexual encounter of forgiveness, their entwined emotions something that she knows she has never and will never experience. The physical staging expresses Blanche’s simultaneous longing and repugnance of Stanley silently and powerfully.
In desperate loneliness, Blanche attempts to seduce the post boy before she is finally committed to an asylum by Stanley and Stella. There she fantasises about the doctor while reaching up to the bare light bulb, a fragile moth about to be consumed by its heat.
Unsurprisingly, this brief run is deservedly sold out. It is unlikely to fade from the repertoire so catch it whenever you can next time. This is a production that earns 15 out of 10 on every account.