Kirsty Stuart on A Streetcar Named Desire at Pitlochry: ‘The dramatic tension is terrific’
Think of Tennessee Williams, and the idea of America’s sultry Deep South is bound to come immediately to mind. The playwright’s name itself tells a story, of young Tom Williams, born in Mississippi, whose fellow university students in Iowa mockingly named him “Tennessee” because of his southern accent; and his great canon of plays, from The Glass Menagerie to Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, all tend to conjure up an atmosphere of oppressive summer heat, and a southern society full of smouldering divisions and prohibitions.
It’s also difficult for actors working on Williams’s plays to avoid vivid memories, embedded in the culture, of some of the great film versions that have been made of them; Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, for example, or Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s intense 1951 version of A Streetcar Named Desire.
When it comes to Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new production of Streetcar, though, the two actors stepping up to the leading roles of Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski – Kirsty Stuart and Matthew Trevannion – are determined to find their own approach to Williams’s mighty American tragedy about a no-longer-young woman whose life has reached crisis-point, and who washes up at her younger sister Stella’s home in working-class New Orleans, with nowhere else left to go.
“I think there’s a tendency to think of this play as a kind of slow burner,” says Stuart, now one of Scotland’s leading female actors after stunning stage and screen performances, including in Faith Healer and Adventures With The Painted People at Pitlochry. “There’s a feeling of languor associated with the Deep South, and a sense of Blanche as kind of a drifty character, with no real momentum.
“All I can say, though, is that the play doesn’t feel like a slow burner when you’re playing it. The dramatic tension is terrific from the outset, and although Blanche is clearly at some level very unwell, she has these other very strong dimensions to her – a feeling that the world can be a better place, that art and music and poetry can lift people, and make life more beautiful.”
And Stuart’s co-star, Welsh actor and writer Matthew Trevannion, fully agrees. “This play’s like a piece of organic matter, as if it grew by itself,” he says. “You never have to work out what’s going on in any scene, because it all follows a line of beautiful, weird logic; and as an actor you just have to fasten your seatbelt, and go where it takes you.
“When it comes to the character of Stanley Kowalski – well, I haven’t seen the Brando film, but I know it was the performance that first made his reputation as an incredibly powerful and sexy screen presence; and I feel it would be very strange to come on and play Stanley like that now, considering his actions – essentially, we see him striking his pregnant wife, and raping her sister, and that can’t be portrayed as in any way heroic.
“It’s not that Stanley is a complete monster, though. He’s a man who has bought into the postwar American Dream – the idea that if he works hard, and serves his country in war, and lives right, then he can be the equal of any other American. Then along comes Blanche with her privileged Southern Belle upbringing and her racist attitudes – she calls him a Polack at their very first meeting – and sneers at his job, his home, his background. So there’s a fascinating tension between two different visions of America there, right from the start.”
As well as playing Blanche and Stanley, Stuart and Trevannion will also play another pair of iconic characters this summer, when they take on the roles of Laura and Alec in Emma Rice’s musical stage version of Brief Encounter, based on the famous story by Noel Coward, which became another legendary postwar film.
“The atmosphere of the two plays could hardly be more different,” says Trevannion. “This Brief Encounter has songs in it, for a start. But what they have in common is that both stories were written in the mid-20th century by gay men who at that time could not be open about their sexuality, and who therefore knew a lot about love that’s forbidden or made difficult by circumstances, which is the theme of Brief Encounter.”
“It is such a sad story, in a way that almost everyone can recognise,” says Stuart. “Yet the thing is that the love between Laura and Alec has so much joy in it, for as long as it lasts; and that’s what’s captured so beautifully in this musical version. It’s just so rare and fascinating to be able to play these two sets of very different characters from the same period, in the same summer season; but that’s the opportunity a Pitlochry season gives you, as an actor, and what the artistic director Elizabeth Newman – who’s directing both these plays – is trying to build on.
“It’s hard not to be a bit in love with what Elizabeth is doing at Pitlochry, in terms of helping artists develop their careers in what are not easy times,” adds Stuart, whose actor/playwright husband Martin McCormick will also see his successful 2022 monologue The Maggie Wall revived at Pitlochry this summer. “And the joyful thing is that it involves the Pitlochry audience, too; makes them part of this process of watching the company members evolve and grow as artists. These two plays are certainly giving both of us a chance to do that; and now we just hope that, in return, we can give them the great performances they deserve.”
A Streetcar Named Desire is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from 2 June until 30 September; Brief Encounter is in repertoire from 16 June until 29 September, see www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com