It took me a while to stop gushing over King’s Players production of A Streetcar Named Desire long enough to sit down and write this review. This is because this production, a truly impressive piece of student theatre, enchanted me. From the performances and the direction to the set and the costumes, I thought it succeeded perfectly in honouring and bringing to life the work of Tennessee Williams, one of my favourite playwrights.
For those who are not familiar with Tennessee Williams’ classic play (or maybe you’re like me and have read his complete works), it tells the story of Blanche DuBois, a fading beauty who moves in with her sister Stella and her rough-around-the-edges husband, Stanley, in the French Quarter of 1940s New Orleans. The DuBois sisters grew up in a wealthy household on a plantation in the country, a home Blanche has just lost due to debts. Over the course of her stay with Stella and Stanley, we see her unravel as her tainted past is exposed. However, that is just the outline of the plot – what’s on the surface. As director Sara Malik put it when I interviewed her, ‘Tennessee Williams’ talent lies in his ability to create an almost musical beauty from ordinary lives. Ultimately, this play is about a lost soul. The story contains bewilderment, loneliness, and a yearning for help, a cry of pain.’
As the audience enters the Anatomy Museum, a small venue at the top of the King’s Building, they are immediately absorbed into a scrappy New Orleans apartment. Laundry lines hung with various garments criss-cross the room. Chairs, a table, a sink and a cupboard are covered with knick-knacks and liquor bottles. To the left of the front rows, two bedrooms have been constructed, divided by a thin blue curtain. The clever set design has thus provided the actors with three different playing spaces and the audience with three different places to focus our attention. The balcony is also used, adding another level to the immersive set. Thus, the Anatomy Museum, sometimes a difficult venue to work with, has been excellently manipulated to serve the play’s needs.
‘They told me to take a street-car named Desire..’ One of the details of direction that I loved in this play was the fact that we hear Blanche before we see her. The glare of a spotlight shining from the back of the room hides her from view, and then she appears with just the type of ‘temporary magic’ she professes to try to create. French student Rebecca Lewis gives a magnificent performance as Blanche, capturing all the tragedy and beauty of the role and sucking the audience in with a gloriously Southern voice and a floating physicality. She maintains the intensity of her character over three and a half hours with ease, completely transformed into broken, brittle, bewitching Blanche.
Beth Mabin, Music student, is a sweet, youthful and very practical Stella – a charming, contrasting accompaniment to her sister and husband. Classics student Nick Carter embodies Stanley Kowalski’s brutality and menace just as well as his more tender moments and underlying vulnerability. His is a powerful performance that left many audience members shaken. The rest of the cast’s characters are well-fleshed out; every member of the ensemble in important.
Great care was put into developing the relationships between characters. Blanche and Stella share a strong bond, the dominance of which teeters between Stella, caring yet disapproving, and Blanche, struggling to appear confident yet inwardly lost. Stella and Stanley have great chemistry – their tempestuous relationship is utterly believable. Blanche and Stanley’s rapport is more complex. They are drawn together yet grate against each other like two faulty magnets. This culminates in a horrific scene that sent a chill through the room. Blanche and Mitch’s initial flirtations are constructed in such a way that the audience can almost sense their doomed nature from the start.
When I interviewed her, director Sara Malik stated that her favourite scene was that in which Blanche is rejected by suitor Mitch. It is indeed a powerful scene, and highlights the forces Blanche as a single woman in the South of the 1940s must struggle against. However, my favourite scene was a monologue in which Blanche narrates a tragic storyline that explains much of her character. Without giving too much away – Blanche was once married, when she was very young. She lost the boy, and it damaged her forever. Rebecca stood right next to the front row, where I was seated, for some of this monologue. Seeing an actor perform something so heartbreaking up close was enthralling.
Heaps of King’s talent came together to stage this production. From the wonderful costumes to the mesmerising promotional photography shot by Katie Edwards, everything worked. It was highly enjoyable to watch something that had obviously been lovingly crafted. Sara and the rest of the production team are graduating this year, but I for one shall be keeping an eye on their next projects. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
A Streetcar Named Desire ran at the Anatomy Museum at King’s College London on 22, 24, 25, 26 March 2017.
photo credit: Lara Peters