Theatre / The fragility of steel

Streetcar Named Desire Haymarket, London
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The Independent Culture
"Some men are took in by this Hollywood glamour stuff and some men are not," snarls Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, leaving Blanche Dubois in little doubt that he belongs in the second category. Hollywood glamour stuff is, however, almost the undoing of Peter Hall's Haymarket revival of this Tennessee Williams classic.

Williams' heroine, the pathetically fading, neurasthenic Southern belle who clings to delusions of poetry and refinement as her mental world disintegrates, is played by the Oscar-winning screen actress, Jessica Lange. Still drop- dead gorgeous and evidently feeling no great desire to deny this in the interests of the role, a radiant Lange comes over like an object lesson in healthy ageing. The Blanche Dubois Work-Out Video? Well, maybe it doesn't go that far, but Lange's heroine certainly isn't drinking in the last chance saloon.

Even Blanche's wardrobe, tawdry finery that is supposed to make one wince at her need to project a youthful image, here becomes Lange down to the ground. When Christian Burgess's excellent Mitch pulls off the paper light shade and holds Blanche's face under the glare of the naked bulb, the moment fails to pierce with its cruelty because this is a test that Lange's Blanche can pass with flying colours.

The doomed moth aspect of the heroine, the twitchings and nervous flutterings, seem to be signalled rather than lived in this star's performance. She can capture the deluded music of those sing-song Southern flights of poetry but can't show you the desperate creature who needs to cocoon herself in these cadences. If Lange has fragility, it's a fragility of steel. She's best at those moments when Blanche, with a pitiable, compulsive coquetry, tries to foist the role of gallant on some passing male. There's an exquisite combination of sadness, delicacy and embarrassment here in the scene where she steals a kiss from a young stranger.

The sweaty primitiveness is all spray-on in Toby Stephens's performance as Stanley. This actor looks too much like English head boy material to play a Polack hunk of brutish sex appeal. From Stanley's appetites, I think you can deduce that he is a man who will not be slow in running to fat. This, of course, was also true of the role's great creator, Marlon Brando. But it's the metabolism of his mother, Maggie Smith, that Stephens seems to have inherited.

Hall's production achieves some fine effects in its overlappings of subjective and objective reality. Not just in the nerve-jangling roar of passing trains or in the ghostly polka tune that swells from a music-box tinkle to an infernal fairground pounding in the black-out between scenes. Here, for example, in the build-up to the rape, the old crone selling flowers for the dead re-emerges from the top of the tenement and, crying her wares, adds an antiphonal note of doom to the tense proceedings, alongside the lurid lighting and the huge phantasmagoric shadows of predatory males that loom up against the curtains.

In many ways, the most satisfying performance of the evening comes from Imogen Stubbs, as Blanche's sister Stella, who guilt-riddenly rejects Blanche in order to save her marriage. Watching the excellent Stubbs, you realise that what the play's first director, Elia Kazan, said is true, that "Stella would have been Blanche except for Stanley". His sexual prowess is clearly like a great tranquilliser for Blanche's nerves. Stubbs gives you valuable hints of the edginess underlying Stella's slouchy, down-to- earth quality and will one day, you suspect, make a magnetic Blanche.

To 22 March. Booking: 0171-930 8800

Paul Taylor