© Marc Brenner

Freed from desire: How Rebecca Frecknall revitalised Tennessee Williams

A new staging of Tennessee Williams’s most famous play offers a different perspective on its themes of sexual violence
January 25, 2023

I have a theatrical dirty secret. I have never liked A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’s so-called masterpiece. For a critic, this is almost on a par with saying you’ve never liked Hamlet—the play is habitually, reflexively cited as the greatest of the 20th century. 

Williams’s symbolism is crude: there isn’t just a streetcar named “Desire” but also, absurdly, one taken afterwards, called “Cemeteries”. The central characters are hard to find sympathetic: self-deluding Blanche, the world’s worst house guest, and Stanley, the brother-in-law who reasserts his territory by raping her.

Then there’s the notorious politics of the rape itself. Generations of critics have read Stanley’s assault as an answer to Blanche’s provocations. A-level guides instruct students to assess in “balanced” fashion the truth of Stanley’s words as he overpowers Blanche, “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning!”—no matter that she is brandishing a broken bottle in his face and frantically dialling a telephone to call for rescue. It doesn’t help that Elia Kazan’s 1951 film, which casts a long shadow over every production, served up Marlon Brando’s Stanley to male and female consumers alike as the primary sexual object. His was the torn t-shirt that launched a -thousand rape fantasies.

In 2023, however, are we still here, making the case that a female character deserves her rape? And if not—if we empathise exclusively with Blanche, not Stanley—can this play ever work?

There is such a thing as a game-changing production. A production that makes the doubters like me sit up, smack our palms to our foolish foreheads, and realise what a stupendous piece of dramatic literature we’ve been missing. Rebecca Frecknall’s talent as a director is hardly unknown—last year she won the Olivier, Critics’ Circle and Drama Desk awards for best director for Cabaret—but she is still young, and we have the joy of watching her full career develop. Her new production at London’s Almeida has been much anticipated. The screen-star talent is Paul Mescal, who, after his breakthrough in the BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, knows a thing or two about being a man commodified; the revelatory performances come from Anjana Vasan as his wife, Stella, and Patsy Ferran as a fragile, youthful Blanche.

Frecknall’s insight is to remind us that Stanley and Blanche are both predators. Post #MeToo, there is no pretence that Stanley’s rape is anything but vile; the punch he lands on pregnant wife Stella is equally unforgiveable. But there is the fact, too, of the homophobic cruelty with which a young Blanche triggered the suicide of her adolescent gay husband. Her attempt to rediscover him, this staging makes clear, has left a trail of sexually exploited teenagers in her wake—including, as Stanley discovers, a pupil she taught at school. The brief scene in which she seduces and then dismisses a paperboy becomes here a moment of high cruelty, the mirror of Stanley’s rape. You would not want her teaching your sons.

Frecknall reuses tricks from her 2018 production of Williams’s Summer and Smoke, which also starred Ferran. The set is similarly bare, Lee Curran’s lighting equally stark. The primary effect is stripped-down storytelling: the softness with which her ensemble place or remove an occasional prop beside the lead actors, only when strictly necessary, throws into relief the violence on stage.

As in Rob Ashford’s 2009 production with Rachel Weisz, Blanche’s dead husband manifests in ghostly form, only for the same actor (Jabez Sykes) to return as her paperboy prey. Here, this makes the scene our key to everything—electric, terrifying. I sometimes wonder whether, for all her charisma, the hyper-anxiety that Ferran brings to each of her roles is a tad too much—but, as the neurotic Blanche, she is perfectly cast. Blanche may be in denial about being “a girl over 30”, but Ferran reminds us that she’s young enough to build a life, perhaps with Dwane Walcott’s likeable Mitch. This Blanche is funny, too. The humour she shares with Vasan’s Stella is naughty, human and, most importantly, sane. For once, these sisters seem to enjoy each other’s company.

But while one sister is left trapped, Blanche emerges oddly free. Gore Vidal records Tennessee Williams joking that his play actually had a happy ending: Blanche, allergic to reality, should thrive in the dream world of a mental hospital, flirting with every doctor. Jest or not, as Tom Penn’s gentlemanly medic escorts Ferran into madness in Frecknall’s production, it feels like an escape.