The theatres are closed. What now? Commissioned and co-created by Greyscale, Imaginary Reviews is a series that invites critics and artists of all stripes to write about a fictional performance at their local theatre. The series continues with Jafar Iqbal’s write-up of a Tennessee Williams classic reimagined for modern-day Cardiff.
Audio version, read by Nigel Barrett:
After successfully reimagining European classics The Cherry Orchard and Hedda Gabler, Sherman Theatre now turns its attention to an American classic. Writers Kelly Rees and Mari Izzard move Tennessee Williams’ seminal masterpiece from misty New Orleans to misty South Wales, a change that’s less drastic than first imagined. Though predominantly in English, the script is peppered with Welsh, Turkish and BSL, a multilingualism which echoes the melting pot that is twenty-first century Cardiff.
Far more drastic and bold was the decision to cast only womxn. It’s an unfamiliar twist to a story that’s so steeped in themes of patriarchy and toxic masculinity, but Rees and Izzard do a great job of shifting the power dynamics without compromising the narrative. Here, widowed Blanche (Alexandria Riley) has to swap London for a Cardiff estate when she moves in with little sister Stella (Mali Ann Rees) and her wife Liyah (Pinar Ogun). Struggling with her new surroundings, Blanche finds solace in the kindly Michelle (Stephanie Back), but it’s not long before the past comes back to haunt them all.
The strength of this version of A Streetcar Named Desire is the authenticity with which queer identities are portrayed. All four central characters are well-rounded and human, shaped not just by their gender or sexual identity but also by race, language and age. Scenes between Blanche and Liyah particularly stand out, with Riley and Ogun delivering powerhouse performances as the two women fighting for Stella’s loyalty. Back plays Michelle with just the right amount of tenderness but, unlike the original, the character uses humour rather than silence to mask her insecurities. It’s a welcome modification, as Back is laugh-out-loud funny at times. Rounding off the lead cast is Rees, superb as Stella. Rees deftly expresses the exasperation and helplessness of the woman torn between the women in her life, and her final cry for help is beautifully performed.
Streetcar contains many of these exceptional set-pieces, and that’s credit to Alice Eklund’s astute direction. Each character’s emotional journey is slow, with Eklund deliberately holding it all back, instead letting it explode spectacularly at the end. The play is better for it.
It’s not all tragic, though – levity comes from the chorus, a team of four with Lyndsay Foster, Luciana Trapman and Elin Phillips led by Sami Thorpe. Brilliant performers in their own right, you could argue that they’re under-utilised, but they fulfil a vital role. Echoing the sort of ensemble so commonly used in Taking Flight Theatre outdoor productions, the quartet move the story along and act as interpreters, translators and audio describers. Playing with so many different languages and technical strands is a difficult feat, and Eklund should be applauded for bringing it all together.
Streetcar looks great too. Becky Davies transforms half of Sherman’s main house into the cross-section of a ground-floor flat and the other half into the surrounding suburbs. Most of the action takes place indoors, with the chorus lurking outside. Tic Ashfield’s pulsating score runs throughout the piece, changing in tone as the narrative does, really coming to the fore when Blanche wanders confusedly around the flat in the final third of the play. As the walls start to close in on Blanche, so too does the light. Katy Morison’s lighting design shifts from the vivacious neon of the first half, to dark pastels as her world tightens, before returning to neon in the final scene as she reaches full delirium.
A Streetcar Named Desire ends the way it begins. A cacophony of voices in different languages and dialects, talking over each other and at one another, but all together as one. And in the middle of it all, defeated, is Blanche, taking one last look at the world she could have had before leaving. For that brief moment, we are all Blanche, looking at the world we could have, wishing for it.
And then the curtain falls.