A Streetcar Named Desire, Lyttelton, National Theatre, London
Blanche is too tough and Kowalski too sensitive in this miscast 'Streetcar'
Wednesday 09 October 2002
Glenn Close was sensational as Norma Desmond, the superannuated silent screen diva, in Trevor Nunn's Los Angeles production of Sunset Boulevard. Now, in the same director's National Theatre revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, Close makes her British stage debut in the role of Blanche Dubois, another female symbol of a dying culture who fails to adapt and winds up being led off to the nuthouse.
The difference is that Norma's delusions of grandeur are armour-plated, whereas Tennessee Williams's heroine – the faded Southern belle who is on the run from ruin and sexual scandal – has a pitifully shaky grip on her pretensions to genteel respectability. We know that Close is a dab hand at projecting implacable resolve. But is vulnerability within her compass?
On the evidence of her performance here, the answer, I'm afraid, is a pretty emphatic no. With that determined cut of jib, she comes across as a tough cookie who is engaged in an arch impersonation of Blanche. The ladylike airs on her arrival at her sister's New Orleans apartment are too confidently imperious.
True, she extracts some good broad comedy from this "visiting royalty" manner, as when she lets out a hilarious shriek of distress at the idea that she might have to sweep up some broken glass. But she fails to communicate the painful fragility that lies behind Blanche's compulsive flirtatiousness and deluded poetic flights. Instead of the nervously fluttering doomed moth, the actress presents a figure who, at moments, could be rechristened Cruella Dubois. It's characteristic that in the scene where she steals a kiss from the newspaper boy, the focus falls on the youth's comic discomfort rather than on Blanche's sad and embarrassing emotional neediness.
It doesn't help that Close looks more like the well-preserved mother than the haggard sister of Stella, whose plump, down-to-earth sensuality and realism are well portrayed by Essie Davis.
The miscasting extends to Blanche's antagonist. Muscled, lean and exquisitely cheekboned Iain Glen exudes the right kind of sexual vanity as her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, but the sense of primitive animal magnetism and of intense physical threat is missing from his performance. He's a naturally sensitive actor and so because the characters aren't presented as the kind of graphic opposites who attract and repel each other, there's woefully little sexual tension between them.
Bunny Christie's monumental set revolves to take us right the way through to the bathroom in the Kowalski apartment. This airiness and activity (the show sometimes looks as if it's aspiring to be Streetcar! the musical) militate against an atmosphere of steamy oppressiveness. And with its perverse central casting, this Streetcar offers a less than enthralling three-hour ride.
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