By Siobhan Lynn Brennan, Assistant Director
There’s something really exciting about brushing the dust off a classic, taking a play everyone thinks they know, and finding that new-minted version, that makes sense to us in the here and now.
Walking into the first day of rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire, the energy and enthusiasm in the room is palpable. Director Chelsea Walker immediately gets us on our feet and playing in the space. The cast is young, enthusiastic and diverse – more than ready for the challenge of taking Tennessee Williams’ classic 1947 play and transporting it into 2018.
My role as Assistant Director involves being a supportive and helpful presence in the rehearsal room, and doing my research. This could include anything from learning about the most detailed nuances of poker, to finding out what characterises a modern ‘Southern belle’. I also, sometimes, do a few rounds of teas.
On the second day, with the speakers blasting a mix of Kanye West, Jay Z and Buddy Holly, the cast improvise – Chelsea asks each actor to come into the space one by one, and perform a small task involving the myriad of props laid out for them by the wonderful stage management team.
A figure crouches to polish a bowling ball; another pinches his hat, donning it with triumphant relish. Someone runs the length of the space with a bucket of old chicken held at arms length. A man counts his poker winnings with a studied thoroughness. A woman stands tall, feet on the table, Queen of the space. The Kowalski’s flat becomes a playground, a lived-in space where anything is possible.
As we work our way swiftly through the first few scenes of the play, we discover how timely and relevant Tennessee Williams’ script continues to be, particularly now, in the era of the #MeToo moment. With relationships between men and women, sexual violence, and toxic masculinity large in the public consciousness, this play has never felt more close to us; more vital.
As Friday approaches, we try to suss out what Williams was concerned with writing the play. More often than not, we discover, the fundamentals haven’t changed in seventy years. In 2018 - Chelsea tells us - even post hurricane Katrina, New Orleans remains the vibrant, multicultural city Williams describes in his play; full of music and colour. She visited the Big Easy herself to research for the production; she describes the cloying air of Louisiana heat and the joys of Southern hospitality.
On the flipside, the city also has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the US. Louisiana has the fourth highest rate of women murdered by men. At night on Bourbon Street men hang from balconies, leering and cat-calling at the women below. Movement Director Shelley Maxwell helps the men get into character, establishing swagger and physical dominance over their domain.
This year feels like such an opportune moment to take this classic play on tour around the country– as a Welsh director I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the audience reaction at Theatre Clwyd in North Wales, and the cast are already anticipating the beautiful views of the Lake District when the play heads up north to Keswick. On Friday we all panic about booking digs.
On Saturday, Chelsea challenges us to come up with a summary of the play in one sentence. When your mate asks ‘What’s the play about, then?’, what do you say? It’s a struggle! Streetcar is a play that’s more concerned with nuances of relationships, earth-shattering changes in relations between people, rather than clear-cut events. We haven’t found a satisfying answer yet.
Perhaps it lies in the games of poker that run through the play – literal games of ‘Seven Card Stud’ played exclusively by the men, a game of pretence and illusion, where femininity is deliberately, viciously excluded - and the metaphorical game played between Blanche, Stanley, Stella and Mitch, one of guessing and second-guessing, before finally being forced to lay your cards on the table.
Perhaps, but perhaps not. We have a long way to go yet. Onwards and upwards – to week two!