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A Streetcar Named Desire

Rachel Weisz gives a striking performance as Blanche DuBois in the Donmar Warehouse's revival of Tennessee Williams' classic drama.

Rachel Weisz and Elliot Cowan
in A Streetcar Named Desire
(© Johan Persson)
Despite a striking and intelligent central performance from Academy Award winner Rachel Weisz as the broken Blanche DuBois, the Donmar Warehouse's production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire stubbornly remains just shy of the sum of its not inconsiderable parts.

Weisz's Blanche gives the production its heart, yet she resists the urge to utterly dominate proceedings with her relatively understated and generous portrayal. Her Blanche is a delicate creature, exuding elegance even as she floats round the Kowalskis' two-room apartment swigging bourbon on the sly. Clad for much of the time in a crimson bathrobe with long looped sleeves, her slender white hands flutter in front of her as if playing some unseen instrument. Wiesz steers her portrayal of the character from that of a little girl playing dress-up to that of a tired, aging woman much wronged by the world. While she is always on edge, strung tighter than a high-wire, there is something oddly likable about her. She is like a child in need of comfort, even as she harshly berates brother-in-law Stanley (Elliot Cowan) for his caveman-like tendencies.

Cowan has nailed the physicality of the role: broad-backed and thick-tongued, with a spine of sweat visible on his shirt-back. While he conveys the danger of a man who is prone to sudden animal rage -- and is yet also not without charm -- he seems less at home in his skin than his castmates and his accent is the most inclined to wander. Ruth Wilson plays Stella as a woman who is more solid than her sister in every sense. While the sibling connection between them is tangible -- and her love for Blanche is evident even when casually dispatched to the drug store for yet another Lemon Coke -- so is her physical and emotional hunger for Stanley.

Director Rob Ashford -- best known for his award-winning choreography -- successfully manipulates the ever-shifting emotional tensions and the three-hour running time dances by. Still, he is also responsible for a number of jarring elements. His use of music feels increasingly intrusive as the production progresses and the explicit manner in which he depicts Blanche's torment by her past demons at times seems to clash with, and even undermine, the subtlety of Weisz's performance. At key emotional moments, he also seems to push the audience away.

The set design, however, is incredibly evocative. Christopher Oram has made full use of the height of the space: the Donmar's balconies have been wrapped in French Quarter railings and a spindly spiral staircase runs from floor to ceiling. Steam occasionally drifts through the bathroom door (as Blanche soothes her nerves with one of many dips in the tub), intensifying the feeling of oppressive Louisiana heat, even when the production doesn't always supply it.