A Streetcar Named Desire, Donmar Warehouse, London<br></br>Ghosts, Arcola, London<br></br>Sixteen, Kensal House Estate, London

The Hollywood star makes an impressive West End return, despite a staging laden with stylistic tics

Reviewed,Kate Bassett
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:16

Rachel Weisz could be a ghost: pale and bone-thin, with those big dark eyes and a white gauze frock.

Playing Tennessee Williams's fallen Southern belle, Blanche DuBois, Weisz drifts into Rob Ashford's engrossing production of A Streetcar Named Desire. She sets down her valise under a flickering gas lamp and blinks nervously, like a lost soul bewildered to find herself in Hades.

Of course, she is in fact entering the social underworld of 1940s New Orleans: the rundown tenement block where she wants to shack up with her newlywed sister, Stella. Proving tenacious, she soon gets under the skin of Stella's man, Elliot Cowan's macho and threateningly uncouth Stanley Kowalski.

Though harping on about her refined upbringing, this lady visitor is on the skids and, when nobody's watching, Weisz's delicate air is startlingly ditched. She grabs a bourbon bottle off the sideboard and clutches it under her arm like an old soak. Later, she baits Cowan by lolling across the marital bed in her satin slip, just momentarily.

Some might want a Blanche who's more obviously batty or ostentatiously snooty. Maybe some satirical humour is lost. But having Weisz downplay the character's fey and histrionic side is refreshing, and the depth to which she's morally raddled comes as a series of revelatory shocks.

She is crushing and treacherous, yet almost unconsciously so. She's craven, but also trying to cling on to hope. The only snag with Weisz is this Hollywood star looks so youthful that, when she is forced to stand under a naked bulb, to expose her supposedly dilapidated looks, the audience can only snort in baffled admiration at her flawlessness. Blanche is usually played older. That said, Williams himself specified she was just 30 years old.

Cowan initially looks like a butch cliché: brooding under a flat cap; gleaming biceps busting out of his T-shirt; Brando turned into a brand. Nonetheless what he captures, electrifyingly, is Stanley's blend of brewing violence and bruised feelings, nasty chauvinism and justified, rising class anger. He and Ruth Wilson's long-suffering Stella have terrific sexual chemistry as well, tender and tempestuous. Indeed, with comparatively little stage experience, Wilson proves just as impressive as the other two, and this is Stella's devastated domestic tragedy quite as much as theirs.

Hitherto mainly known as a choreographer, Ashford has drawn excellent naturalistic acting from everybody here. If only he hadn't added a load of phantom polkas and parades, repeatedly fleshing out Weisz's memories of ballroom beaux. Showing Stanley copulating onstage, in slo-mo, is a further stylised embarrassment, and it spoils the trace of doubt that Williams left hanging over the suggestion of an off-stage rape.

In Ibsen's Ghosts, directed by Bijan Sheibani, the facade of 19th-century respectability is starting to crumble. On the surface everything looks spic and span: a Scandinavian parlour with serene Hammershøi blue walls and starched white linen.

The well-to-do Mrs Alving (Suzanne Burden) has been keeping up appearances for decades, and has built an orphanage as a memorial to her reputedly virtuous husband. However, the truth – that Captain Alving was a rotten alcoholic womaniser – will out. Her beloved son Osvald has returned after years away, only to reveal that he is tragically infected with brain-corroding syphilis. The covert sins of the father have been inherited, and Osvald is unwittingly incestuous too, desiring maidservant Regine (Natasha Broomfield) – his half-sister.

Certainly, the period detailing of the candlelit decor is outstanding for a fringe production, but the award-winning Sheibani proves disappointing here, failing to bring out the dialogue's lurking tensions. Maybe Rebecca Lenkiewicz's new English version misses some nuances, but it's really the acting that's slow-paced and insufficiently fine-tuned. Harry Lloyd's Osvald merely seems rather limp, and Paul Hickey's Pastor Manders is such a pious bore that you can't believe Mrs Alving has harboured an unrequited passion for him. Jim Bywater, in turn, lacks menace as Regine's implicitly abusive stepfather. It's left, at the close, to Broomfield to break into fierce rebukes, and for Burden to searingly crumple and howl – letting all her former restraint explode in the sudden agony of losing a child.

Intimations of incest resurface in Sixteen, Helena Thompson's new sink-estate drama about a teenage girl who wants to combine her coming-of-age with a launch party: converting the squat where she lives with her single dad back into a community theatre.

Thompson's plot is, frankly, a jumbled mess and the acting is uneven. The one plus point is the site-specific setting. It's presented (with support from the Gate Theatre) by SPID, a troupe determined to engage people with neglected environments. So, Sixteen is played out in the actual, mouldering community rooms of Kensal House Estate, up at the scraggy end of west London's Ladbroke Grove. On the night I attended, chino-clad punters – way out of their comfort zone – were having to argue their way into the show, past a bunch of hooded youths who loitered at the door, giving verbal cheek and violently slamming against the security shutters covering the windows.

Rather wonderfully, though, that all became part of the dramatic experience in the end. And what a delight, being seated on old sofas and mattresses on wheels which are shunted around wildly between scenes. I'd give that a whirl again.

'A Streetcar Named Desire' (0870 060 6624) to 3 Oct; 'Ghosts' (020-7503 1646) to 22 Aug; 'Sixteen' (020-7229 0706) to 28 Aug

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