at the Lyric Hammersmith, Tuesday 10th September 2013
HERE BEGINS THE SPOILER ALERT
Inevitably, Secret Theatre will be secret no more if you read this post. So yeah, read on if you’ve seen the show, don’t care about the ‘secret’ bit or have no intention whatsoever of seeing it (though you’d be a fool if that were the case).
HERE ENDS THE SPOILER ALERT
Looking at the pre-set for Secret Theatre Show Two, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re about to watch pretty much anything. On either side of the stage are two white walls, with a taller one erected up-stage centre. Some bottles sit down-stage right and a table is at the back. Hanging from some hooks and on the floor by the walls are strip-lights. That’s about it. Hyemi Shin’s set is so clean and abstract that anything could be about to happen.
But once the play starts, that thought kind of washes away. As Stanley Kowalski’s opening lines hit the footlights, we realise we’re in the musty setting of New Orleans in summer, the white walls on either side acting as a stand-in for the cramped tenement buildings. And as Tennessee Williams’ text plays out, there’s the startling recognition that there’s no way this set could house any play. Shin’s design, Lizzie Powell’s lighting and Nick Manning’s Motown soundtrack have been meticulously crafted to service the play (or at least this version of the play). Of course it’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
The reason why I make such a fuss about that is that I’m sure there’ll be people who chastise the production for ignoring Williams’ text. But it does exactly the opposite. It makes it come alive.
Rather, Sean Holmes’ production (and I say that fully aware that this production isn’t his, as such, but the Secret Theatre Ensemble’s, but seeing as his name is down as ‘director’ on the programme, I’ll say that for ease of reference) actually excavates the text, finding symbolism where we didn’t previously see it and creating new linguistic meaning by shifting emphasis to uncover more than Tennessee Williams ever dared to imagine.
I’ve always thought A Streetcar Named Desire to be one of those plays where Not Much Happens. Blanche comes to visit, fucks things up a bit, and then is taken away. In this staging, however, you realise just how much action there is. Like a dream, this Streetcar plays like a series of important moments; Blanche arriving, the ‘rape’, Blanche getting taken away, and Stanley beating up Stella (which is one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen for a long time, even though it happens out-of-sight). The strip-lights give us an insight into the passions of the play, and a preponderance of tape acts as a reminder for the lack of cohesion in the lives’ of these characters.
One of the key artistic decisions of Secret Theatre has been to have performers speaking lines in their native accents, so that in Show Two we get an Estonian Stanley (Sergo Vares) and a northern Eunice (Katherine Pearce) alongside many other variations. And it works brilliantly, making complete sense on a theatrical plain. We never see Chekhov given with a Russian accent, and if you had actors in Doctor Faustus speak in a German dialect you’d be laughed at, so in that context it seems a little preposterous that all American plays are performed with the respective accent just because they happen to be set in a country that speaks English. Having actors speak in their native accents means that we focus on what they’re saying, dragging Williams’ text into a harsh light where before it was hidden behind Blanche’s lilting Southern drawls.
In turn, this brings out certain performances so that they, in a semi-Brechtian sense, act as conduits for character rather than pretending to actually be the characters. The scenes between Leo Bill’s Mitch and Nadia Albina’s Blanche crackle with unsaid vitality, and mark the time before the play’s more heinous actions, two teenagers trapped within adult bodies. Similarly, there’s a sly sexuality and playfulness to Adelle Leonce’s Stella, licking at a spoon of ice cream throughout and giggling at the childishness of Vares’ Stanley.
And throughout all this, it never feels like a so-called ‘imposed concept’. Instead, each gesture and each moment is played as true to the text without attempting any kind of realism (sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not). Why does Blanche need a pen if she’s just asked for one? What is the point in having a bed on stage if one has just been mentioned? The truth is that in many ways we’ve actually gone backwards since the Elizabethan era; Shakespeare knew that if you wanted it to be night-time during a day-time performance, you just mention the darkness or bring on a torch. Thankfully, Holmes and his team deconstruct everything film and television have done to destroy this element of theatricality, preferring representation over realism. Thus pieces of melon become poker chips, and bursting balloons stand in for breaking plates. A knowing laugh ripples through the audience when Blanche tells Mitch “I don’t want realism, I want magic”, voicing the thoughts of many of us who have become tired with the staid and tiresome technique which permeates much Mainstream British Theatre. In many ways, you want them to push the boat out further, playing with not only the setting but the text itself (though I know rights issues probably prevent this).
As far as I can remember, I’ve never seen a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Somehow, it’s always evaded me and I can’t see how any realistic, period production could match the raw brilliance of the 1951 film. And that’s a fact of which this production is well aware, preferring the possibilities and metaphor of theatre over the meticulousness of realism, exploding the text wide open so that we can see more clearly its comments about gender relations, about fracture and renewal, about light and dark. More than anything, however, it demonstrates that (and I know this is a fairly obvious statement but it’s an idea to which many are blind) this representational, eclectic style is not limited to pre-1900 texts, and that twentieth-century classics are still able to push boundaries formally. It’s far from perfect, and that “Fuck yeah” moment never quite comes, but my God it’s exciting.