Weisz’s Blanche not quite Stella

Alice McCarthy caught up with the latest version of A Streetcar Named Desire in London, with all eyes on Rachel Weisz in the pivotal lead role.

Rachel Weisz presents a wholly enticing new Blanche, delicate and complicated, who enters the stage pale as a sheet with a distinctive air of exhaustion, despair and fragility. The most appealing aspect of Weisz’s performance is her vivid presentation of Blanche’s oddly positive nihilism, which is most obvious after her supposed rape by Stanley. Weisz enters from the bathroom with shining eyes and gaiety in her voice, packing her clothes away in a busy and satisfied manner whilst chatting excitedly with Eunice Hubbel and Stella. In doing so Weisz demands both frustration and admiration from her audience as she conveys Blanche’s ability, and need, to immerse herself fully in a fantasy version of reality. There is indeed a sense that living a life in fantasy is the only way to survive in Tennessee Williams’s bleak American dream. Thus Weisz allows us an insight into Blanche’s most powerful defence mechanism – a strong and inventive imagination.

Rob Ashford allows for a fascinating dynamic to play out between Stanley and Blanche. Cowan’s muscular and rippling physicality owns the stage and creates an all encompassing sexual strain between the two. Any moment that the two are left together becomes unbearably tense and one is left nervous at Cowan’s intense impulsiveness.  However some of Cowan’s intense sexuality seems slightly lost on Weisz’s Blanche. Weisz’ unflawed, youthful good looks bring a virginal quality to Blanche which threatens to overshadow any sense of her darker potential as a seductress.

The potential of this play is unfortunately frustrated by a consistent sense of ‘obviousness’. There is indeed a visible and consistent overstatement (both physically and symbolically) of those undercurrents of viciousness that William’s leaves so delightfully ambiguous in the text. Certainly when Elliot Cowan’s ripped and muscular Stanley brutally rapes Blanche on stage one cannot help but feel that such action is unnecessary. The threatening aura of Stanley’s animalistic physicality should suffice in creating the atmosphere of violence and danger that is so crucial to this play. Likewise the presence of Blanche’s homosexual dead husband and his lover on stage feels like a pointing figure saying: “This is what is happening – just in case you haven’t got it yet”. Such crudity is harsh when juxtaposed with the careful subtlety of Williams’s language. It is unfortunately these stylistic malfunctions that render this a very good production, not quite a great one.