A Streetcar without much desire

Relying on the kindness of audiences: Jessica Lange fails to live up to the hype in Peter Hall's `A Streetcar Named Desire'; THEATRE
In Her programme note for A Streetcar Named Desire, Jessica Lange, who has six Academy Award nominations, states that she has built "her distinguished career on portraying strong and independent women". Blanche DuBois, the central character of Tennessee Williams's play, who famously depends on the kindness of strangers, is not that kind of dame. Nevertheless, Lange has played Blanche twice before: in her Broadway debut, opposite Alec Baldwin, in 1992, and for CBS, with Baldwin again. Her movie-star status ensures that her third attempt - for Peter Hall this time, at the Haymarket - has a box-office advance approaching pounds 500,000. It also affects this equivocal production in less rewarding ways.

Firstly, Lange cannot overcome the problem that she looks great. When Mitch (Christian Burgess) insists that he wants to see what Blanche really looks like, Blanche begs him not to expose her face to harsh light. If any woman in her late forties can withstand the glare of a lightbulb, it is Lange.

Her iconic presence also upsets the balance of power between Blanche and the other characters, particularly Stanley, the Brando role, played here by Toby Stephens. It isn't easy for a nice-looking, middle-class English boy in his twenties to present himself to a major Hollywood actress as a sexually threatening elemental force. Stephens has a very good stab at it. Casting directors take note. He starts off so insouciantly, in a sullen, taciturn sort of way, that one half hopes he has cut most of his lines: he does so well without them. When he speaks, he opts for cheeky collegiate irony, leaving his rolled-up sleeves, grease-stained hands and low-slung swagger to carry the main burden of his famed animal sexuality. We should feel anxious for Lange. Instead we feel anxious for Stephens; an odd reversal this: rooting for the actor who is playing the brutish character. Stephens deserves our support because in the right role he's going to be wonderful.

The energy level can drop low. Lange may have spent too many years doing close-ups. Even from the stalls she can sound an awful long way off. I kept hoping someone would swing one of those long fluffy microphones over her head. Stephens, too, suffers from narrow vocal range, and the high- pitched New Orleans twang that he uses makes him sound as if he's been inhaling helium.

Lange does capture many aspects of the feathery, fragile, overwrought Blanche. She's lovely at the campy, my-oh-my lines of wonderment ("Gracious, what lung power!"), the appreciative little remarks about alcohol ("Oh, this buzzes right through me") and the enticing smiles when someone lights her cigarette. She's girly and curly: a parade of pauses, sighs and fussing about, as she clutches her elbows or tugs at her locks. Scores of moments - carefully crafted and skilfully performed - are waiting to be spliced together in the editing suite. But for all the effort, the stringing together of painstaking details, the part doesn't connect with Lange's tough, rangy, individual talent.

It's Imogen Stubbs, as Stanley's wife Stella, a dreamy, tolerant figure, who seems most rooted in Tennessee Williams's world. On their wedding night Stanley smashed all the lightbulbs with one of her slippers, but, Stella confesses, "I was - sort of - thrilled by it." The "sort of" is the key to her performance. If hers is the hardest performance to characterise it's because it has the least conspicuous acting in it. There's good support too from Christian Burgess as the awkward, perspiring Mitch, a solid, anchoring performance.

Peter Hall impresses us as much in his role as impresario as that of director: close up, we miss the oppressive sense of domestic tension, the sultry August heat, and the barometric shifts in atmosphere as characters come and go. At times William Dudley's two-storey New Orleans set feels empty. This raffish quarter has a rather too well-mannered feel. What emerges, slowly but inexorably, is "masterpiece theatre". Without sufficient voltage, you doubt whether Streetcar - which hangs so much freight on so slender a thread - is itself a masterpiece.

Theatre details, overleaf.