The week in theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire; Watch on the Rhine

Almeida; Donmar Warehouse, London
Paul Mescal, Patsy Ferran and Anjana Vasan captivate in Rebecca Frecknall’s headlong take on Tennessee Williams. And Lillian Hellman’s 1941 call to arms resonates anew

This Streetcar is transporting. The casting of Rebecca Frecknall’s production guaranteed a sellout, and has produced three bewitching performances: Paul Mescal in the part that Brando and his T-shirt played in the 1951 movie, alongside Patsy Ferran, stepping in late for an injured Lydia Wilson, as Blanche, and Anjana Vasan as sister Stella. Yet the central triumph is Frecknall’s ability to find the pulse of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play. Confusion and desire are not embodied in a single performance: they sweep the stage, pushing the action along.

Frecknall has been most acclaimed for her massive production of Cabaret (still running at the Playhouse). Yet her real breakthrough was her 2018 reimagining of Williams’s little-known Summer and Smoke, also featuring Ferran and Vasan: Frecknall weirded the play, making it look both internal and like Streetcar’s twin. This production has a similar, though more far-reaching effect.

Familiar gestures and setting are banished: there is no languorous fanning, less muscular swelter, no tangle of iron stairways. Madeleine Girling’s design, coming and going under Lee Curran’s lighting, is bare but delivers a vital point by being in the round: the action is seen from more than one point of view. Vasan’s Stella, often sunk into herself, her voice low-pitched, is an arresting presence, in part a warning of where love can take you. Mescal, straight-shouldered but rapid-moving, is a terrific blend of tinderbox and damage. He is on guard as soon as he meets his wife’s sister – the bond between the women is put across with exceptional force, as the key to all their relationships. He howls with righteous rage and pain at being called a Polack; yet you see him gathering horrible strength from his male drinking companions: Blanche’s rape is fuelled by a mob.

Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan.
‘Arresting’: Anjana Vasan, right, as Stella with Paul Mescal. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Meanwhile the marvellous Ferran, younger than usual for the woman depending on the kindness of strangers, brings a particular wit to Blanche: she fuses innocence and snobbery, and raises an uneasy laugh with her fastidious reference to Edgar Allan Poe as she rolls her eyes at her sister’s arrangements. She seems propelled by the velocity of her words, her own laughter so forced and hard that you can almost see it hanging in the air.

Frecknall’s training as a dancer infuses her production. Not only in balletic episodes (she sometimes overdoes the bending of limbs) but in the choreographing that groups and scatters the cast to a distinctive rhythm. Music and sound – from a band and singer above the action – are essential here: crooning, humming, whistling, the clash of cymbals, the thump of drums, an inchoate clamour; a mix of inner and outer chaos. It is noise that finally overcomes Blanche: in a wonderful touch, the people who take her off to the asylum are the musicians: chords, not cords, will bind her.

In 1941, eight months before Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the second world war, Watch on the Rhine – a demand that America take action against fascism – was produced. It is shrewd of the Donmar (wake up, Arts Council, which took the theatre’s grant away, while diminishing the Almeida’s funding) to revive Lillian Hellman’s play now. Ellen McDougall’s handsome, convinced production speaks to today’s fear of the rise of dictatorship and new fissures between east and west.

It is, though, a play strangely at odds with itself. Hellman was both wit and political visionary – not necessarily exclusive categories, but in her case uncomfortably manacled to each other. Her call to arms is unassailable, its execution sometimes stiff. An American grande dame is visited by her daughter, who has married and had a family with a German resistance fighter; the plot turns on betrayal, escape and violence; its point is the awakening of the new world to the old.

Hellman’s play contains historical events and figures (characters based on Romanian diplomat Prince Antoine Bibesco and the anti-fascist activist Muriel Gardiner) but the action is invented and its realism lessened by the dramatist’s reluctance to make her hero Jewish: she was wary of provoking American antisemitism. McDougall’s production ingeniously shades the characterisation with musical director Josh Middleton’s score, replacing classical fragments with a Jewish socialist anthem. An early nod to the interweaving of fiction and real political horror is given here by displaying credits from the 1943 Bette Davis film.

The dialogue is often set-piece, and John Light and Carlyss Peer are more rigid than even the rigidity of their characters require. Yet memorable phrases are scattered throughout: I would put up with a lot of duff lines for the comment of the matriarch in her drawing room as she recognises the truth of Nazi brutality: “We’ve been shaken out of the magnolias.”

Patricia Hodge in Watch on the Rhine.
Patricia Hodge embodies ‘haughty certainty’ in Watch on the Rhine. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Memorable performances too. Patricia Hodge authoritatively embodies the grand grandmother – indulged, once adored, bristling and barking as an elderly widow. Her haughty certainty is finally cracked, but she does not crumble: she remains herself, though her golden roll of hair is slightly bowed. There is an outstanding performance from Bertie Caplan as her spookily eloquent young grandson; hyper-alert but with his childhood withered by the threat of persecution. Uneven but fascinating, this delivers history when it was news.

Star ratings (out of five)
A Streetcar Named Desire
Watch on the Rhine ★★★★


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Almeida theatre cancels performances of A Streetcar Named Desire as actor withdraws
Patsy Ferran will take over from Lydia Wilson when the London production opens a week late, alongside co-stars Paul Mescal and Anjana Vasan

Chris Wiegand

08, Dec, 2022 @6:14 PM

Article image
A Streetcar Named Desire with Paul Mescal transfers to West End
Critically acclaimed and now boasting an Oscar nominee, the Almeida’s Tennessee Williams production will move to the Phoenix theatre this spring

Chris Wiegand

25, Jan, 2023 @9:25 AM

Article image
A Streetcar Named Desire review – Paul Mescal brings a fierce and dangerous energy
One of the year’s most hyped shows delivers with powerful performances from the Normal People star, Patsy Ferran and Anjana Vasan

Arifa Akbar

13, Jan, 2023 @9:53 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: [Blank]; Lungs; Vassa – review
Alice Birch searches for hope in the criminal justice system, Claire Foy and Matt Smith bring wit to eco angst, and Siobhan Redmond makes a fine Gorky antiheroine

Susannah Clapp

26, Oct, 2019 @1:59 PM

Article image
The week in theatre: A German Life; Sweet Charity; Three Sisters – review
Maggie Smith makes a triumphant return to the stage as Joseph Goebbels’s former personal secretary

Susannah Clapp

21, Apr, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: I, Joan; The Glass Menagerie; Silence – review
Isobel Thom is a candid, non-binary Joan of Arc in Charlie Josephine’s eye-opening new play

Susannah Clapp

11, Sep, 2022 @9:30 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train; Shipwreck; Berberian Sound Studio – review
Two prisoners confront each other and God in a vital revival, Trump gets off lightly, and a clever tale of a sound engineer packs some real reverb

Susannah Clapp

24, Feb, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The week in theatre: Sweat; The Convert; The Tragedy of King Richard the Second – review
Lynn Nottage brilliantly dramatises industrial unrest in small-town America in the year’s most powerful play

Susannah Clapp

23, Dec, 2018 @8:00 AM

Article image
A Streetcar Named Desire – review
Tennessee Williams's classic draws performances of searing intensity from its central characters, writes Clare Brennan

Clare Brennan

26, Feb, 2012 @12:05 AM

Article image
A Streetcar Named Desire review – Maxine Peake stalks to the heart of Blanche DuBois
Maxine Peake’s creative partnership with the Royal Exchange hits another high in Tennessee Williams’s classic

Susannah Clapp

18, Sep, 2016 @7:10 AM