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Chris Walsh reviews the Scottish Ballet's production of a classic.

Scottish Ballet’s ambitious adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire ends its four night run in Glasgow this evening to begin a UK tour. Those who missed the Glasgow performances would be well advised to make every effort to catch one of the upcoming shows in Edinburgh, London, Aberdeen or Inverness.

The story of Streetcar is well known. The characters of Blanche Dubois and Stanley Kowalski were immortalized by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, respectively, in the screen version of 1951. The story depicted by Artistic Director Ashley Page and the Scottish Ballet cast is the same; though the emphasis and vantage point of the production are often original, offering a fresh visual experience to that of the original play or the motion picture.

The medium dictates that the tale is related chronologically. The first few scenes show Blanche in the setting of her affluent southern beginnings. The tragedy of her early life is revealed at the outset: her husband’s struggle with an ambiguous sexuality and subsequent suicide; the family’s financial ruin and the decay of their estate; and the untimely death of her parents and other close family members. Williams’ play introduces us to the damaged Blanche first, and then gradually reveals the source of her turmoil. Page’s production traces the horrors in Blanche’s life and then invites us to tentatively anticipate the final outcome when she ventures into the alien environment of bustling New Orleans.

Although the sequence of events has a temporal linearity which is unorthodox for this play, what is real and what is fantasy are so regularly interspersed that the viewer often has difficulty telling one from the other. Blanche’s deceased spouse, still bloodstained, regularly appears on stage amongst the living, placing the audience in the vantage point of the increasingly disorientated and drink-addled Blanche. Her imaginings and fantasies appear as realistically on stage as the real events – the line between fantasy and reality is constantly breached so that the audience is confronted with the personal phantasmagoria of Blanche Dubois – the medium could not be better suited to this purpose.

The character of Blanche is a most rare specimen – a sympathetic snob. The genteel ‘Southern Belle’ is always trying to mask her disgust at the living conditions of her sister Stella and her husband Stanley, and the poverty of urban New Orleans. The starkness of the New Orleans apartment is depicted skilfully by the design team with a single bare bulb lighting a room, completely bare apart from a shabby bed and grimy bath. In fact, the entire set is a marvel of ingenuity and economy. There are no behind curtain set changes. The entire landscape is made up of bottle crates which are broken down and rebuilt like a child’s building blocks in front of our eyes. The set is sparse; but we never have any difficulty in determining where the scene is taking place. It is a testament to the strength of the choreography that the audience can stay with the story in this complex narrative ballet without detailed set transformations or any spoken word.

Like everything in Williams’ oeuvre, there is much of the playwright in Streetcar. The sexual shame of Blanche’s husband was experienced by Williams himself, who stumbled through several disastrous heterosexual relationships before accepting his homosexuality. The inner turmoil brought on by Blanche’s mental illness was inspired by Williams’ first hand experience of his mother’s neurosis, and later, that of his sister Rose. Rose was to be institutionalised and eventually lobotomised; a sequence of events which Williams was never to come to terms with. These personal struggles are as powerful in this adaptation as any other. In this instance, the depiction of emotional anguish is given new scope and direction when articulated through dance.

A Streetcar Named Desire has had the often unfortunate fate of finding itself on GCSE and standard grade syllabi. Many young people will be turned off to the play after being forced to study it at school. Others will feel that it is so established and has been performed so often that there is nothing new to take from it. Those people, especially, should strive to see this ballet. It is no mean feat to take such an institution of literature and do something original with it; but in these terms Scottish Ballet have been successful. Whether a fan of the play, a dance enthusiast or someone curious for a new cultural experience; this production comes with the highest recommendation.

From International Socialist Group site.

For further information on performances please see Sadler's Wells London's Dance House site.

Tagged under: Class