Rapture Theatre scored a resounding hit earlier this year, with a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? that featured a world-class performance from Sara Stewart as one of the greatest American anti-heroines, the wrecked and brilliant Martha. Four months on, though, Tennessee Williams’s mighty 1947 masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire - likewise built around an unforgettable American female character, Blanche Dubois – seems somehow to escape Rapture’s grasp; although Gina Isaac’s central performance as Blanche is poignant, thoughtful, and sometimes frightening in its powerful sense of Blanche as an eternal sexual outsider, savagely punished by society for failing to conform to either of the stereotypes available for women, the mother/madonna, or the whore.
Theatre Royal, Glasgow ***
Famously set among the white working class of 1940s New Orleans, Streetcar opens with Blanche’s arrival – all but destitute, although her manner belies it – at the seamy two-room apartment rented by her sister Stella and her new husband Stanley Kowalski, a macho working-class Polish guy. Given its setting in a deeply racially divided society, Streetcar is a play that seems designed to frustrate the best intentions of 21st century directors interested in colour-blind casting; and here, the casting of black actor Joseph Black as Stanley plays painfully with a shocking range of stereotypes, as Blanche’s snobbish and bigoted rants against her brother-in-law - whom she describes as a “pig”, an “animal” and an “ape” - acquire an extra and sickening racial edge.
Yet Black’s passionate and heart-wrenching performance also adds force to the dynamics of Stanley’s relationship with Stella, as she happily abandons her old position of class and racial privilege to live with the man she loves; and to the toxic maelstrom of resentment, prejudice and fury that begins to build between Stanley and Blanche. There are some fine supporting performances, notably from Michelle Chantelle Hopewell as the landlady Eunice, and Kazeem Tosin Amore as Stanley’s friend Mitch. And if Michael Emans’s full-length, three-and-a-quarter hour staging has its underpowered moments, and spares us none of Blanche’s increasingly long-drawn-out musings on her outsider status, it still offers us a Streetcar with an unsettling 21st century edge, full of awareness both of the unresolved racial tensions that still haunt western society, and of our continuing failure to protect and believe victims of sexual abuse, even if the stories they have to tell threaten to bring the patriarchal house down.
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, today, Macrobert, Stirling, 13 September, Howden Park Centre, Livingston, 14 September; Gaeity Theatre, Ayr, 16 September, and on tour until 7 October, including King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 3-7 October.