A Streetcar Named Desire review – Maxine Peake is a breathtaking Blanche

Royal Exchange, Manchester
Peake excels as the disintegrating southern belle in Sarah Frankcom’s fine production of the Tennessee Williams classic

Maxine Peake is not automatic casting for the role of Blanche Dubois in Tennessee Williams’s imperishable play. As she proved when she played Hamlet at the Royal Exchange, Peake has a built-in bullshit detector whereas Blanche’s tragedy is that she lives in a cloud of self-deception. But Peake is an actor of such shape-shifting skill that she fully persuades you she is Williams’s disintegrating southern belle in Sarah Frankcom’s fine production.

It helps that Frankcom suggests Blanche is trapped in a living nightmare. On her arrival in New Orleans on her doomed visit to the Kowalskis – sister Stella and her husband, Stanley – Blanche is caught in the midst of a frightening swirl of activity. Peter Rice’s sound design constantly fills the air with throbs, hums and the clang of distant streetcars, while Jack Knowles’s lighting is full of sudden vibrating colour shifts. It is also typical of a phantasmagoric evening that Blanche is shadowed by not one but three figures all bedecked in death-haunted roses.

It is, however, very much Peake’s evening and she catches perfectly Blanche’s reflex, desperate flirtatiousness. Peake buffs her nails and oils her skin before confronting her predatory Polish brother-in-law, skips girlishly and coyly in front of Mitch, the one man prepared to take her seriously, and puts on the airs and graces of a displaced southern aristo. She even feigns prudishness when her sister, Stella, freely boasts of Stanley’s sexual prowess.

‘I want magic’: Maxine Peake performs as Streetcar’s Blanche DuBois

But the key to Peake’s performance lies in the way she captures Blanche’s limitless capacity for self-delusion. Offered a drink, she says “one’s my limit” while avidly clasping the neck of the bottle. In one of the most ironic moments in American drama, she lectures Stella and tells her, in the manner of a southern schoolmarm “to pull yourself together and face facts”. That is the one thing Blanche can never do, and Peake superbly gives us the tragic spectacle of a woman who disintegrates into panic and hysteria as the net slowly closes around her and the truth of her condition becomes inescapable.

Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Stella and Maxine Peake as Blanche.
Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Stella and Maxine Peake as Blanche. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

It is a breathtaking Blanche that follows a succession of fine interpretations by Glenn Close, Rachel Weisz and Gillian Anderson. My only query about the production is that it is so much on Blanche’s side that some of the play’s ambiguity is sacrificed. In Ben Batt’s very good performance, Stanley represents all that is ugly, cruel and unforgiving in a male-dominated culture: he not only behaves violently to Stella but rapes Blanche by brutally thrusting her against a glass partition. All that is in the play; but so too is Williams’s emphasis on Blanche’s snobbish condescension to Stanley and the character’s instinctive earthy vitality.

Even if the dice are here loaded against Stanley, there is a very good performance by Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Stella which conveys her willing surrender to her husband’s ferocious sexual energy. Youssef Kerkour also conveys the stumbling, tongue-tied decency of Mitch, who finds an echo of his own loneliness in Blanche, and Michelle Butterly is striking as the upstairs neighbour well used to the Kowalskis’ rough-house antics.

In the end, what moves one about the play is Williams’s portrait of naked desperation. And what most of us will remember from this production is Peake’s Blanche for its portrayal of the character’s vanity, vulnerability and desperate, immovable solitude.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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