Review: A Streetcar Named Desire, Scottish Ballet

streetcarWhen I first glanced over the synopsis for Scottish Ballet’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, I wasn’t sure what to make of the plot structure. This performance imagines the full story of Blanche DuBois chronologically, beginning with her early marriage that ends in tragedy, running through the loss of the family estate, Belle Reve, her being forced out of her home town, and then arriving in New Orleans to meet her sister Stella. Tennessee Williams’ script only begins with Blanche’s arrival at her sister’s home, and it is through snapshots throughout the play’s action that we piece together Blanche’s past.

I was uncertain how this change in narrative would affect the impact of the storyline; the original play lets us slowly discover the roots of Blanche’s character, as the façade she has created for herself gradually disintegrates. Nancy Meckler’s direction, exploring more fully the events leading up to her arrival in New Orleans, serves to shape Blanche’s character all the more, however, providing an interesting level to the piece. We suffer with her the tragic end of her early marriage, the sickness and death of her relatives and the loss of the palatial Belle Reve. Anabelle Lopez Ochoa’s choreography captures the pain of these losses simply but effectively – with each family photograph we lose another family member, until the entire backdrop of the family home crashes onto the stage. The blocks that formed Belle Reve make up the set for the rest of the performance, morphing into streetcars, furniture, neon signs and more, all the while reminding us that everything that happens in New Orleans is built upon the events that preceded Blanche’s arrival.

Ochea’s choreography portrays each characters’ desires and vulnerabilities in wonderfully sensitive ways. One of the early numbers, where Blanche’s new husband Allan meets the Young Man on his wedding day, was one of my favourite pieces in the production. The choreography showed a developing tender affection between the two characters, tinged with fear and shame, and captured perfectly an illicit but powerfully felt love affair. The composition throughout shows this balance of sensitivity and impact, with nuanced emotion in the movement that is delicate and fragile, but gut-wrenchingly blunt at the same time.

The performance doesn’t shy away from exploring the details of Williams’ play that were noticeably glossed over in the 1951 film adaptation, which hid that Blanche’s young husband had had an affair with another man, and made far less explicit Stanley’s intentions when returning from the hospital in Scene Ten, where he attacks Blanche. As well as boldly acknowledging the sexuality of its characters, from Blanche’s repressed desire to Stella and Stanley’s freely expressed sensuality, the performance is unflinching in its depiction of the play’s darker, violent side. The portrayal of Stanley’s rape of Blanche is particularly powerful. There is a danger that Stanley’s ferocity is overshadowed in a medium like ballet, where our expectations tend towards the graceful and elegant, but Ochea’s choreography and Eve Mutso (Blanche) and Erik Cavallari (Stanley)’s performances foreground the fear and violence of this assault that is brutal and painful to watch. When I say this piece is ugly and difficult to watch, it’s no reflection on the performance, as the dancing of the two principals is excellent. But Meckler’s direction ensures that, however strong the dancing, this is far from being a glamorised or softened portrayal of sexual assault.

One aspect of Blanche that I felt could have been explored more is actually the strength of her character – although she is a fragile moth-like character, she also presents a real threat to Stanley. In Williams’ text, her influence over Stella and their tie as sisters threatens Stanley’s control over his wife and family. Proud and possessive, he sets out to destroy Blanche. In this performance, there’s little sense that Stanley feels threatened by Blanche so much as annoyed by her presence. For all Blanche’s fantasies, Williams shows her, especially in early scenes, as intelligent and witty, holding her own against Stanley when they discuss the loss of the plantation. We don’t catch as many glimpses of this side of Blanche in the performance – her vulnerability is portrayed above all, although the choreography isn’t without its well-placed touches of humour.

There’s a clever integration of dance styles – from minuets at Blanche and Allan’s wedding, to swing and jive in the bowling alley when Blanche first arrives in New Orleans, to the blend of classical and modern ballet that appears throughout. Blanche stays in her pointe shoes throughout – a nice touch that illustrates her genteel sensibilities in contrast to the newness and modernity of New Orleans. The ensemble work brilliantly at times to convey the life that is continuing as normal around the main action. It’s just a shame that some of the group numbers lacked the synchronicity that would have given them added impact – especially at the point where they throw Blanche out of her home town.

That said, any minor faults in the execution were more than made up for in the performance’s overall evocative power; this is a fantastically sensitive but commanding re-telling of Williams’ celebrated play.

Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire is showing at the Festival Theatre from Wed 18 – Sat 21 Mar 2015.

Laura Tomlinson