The definitive Stanley Kowalski will always be Marlon Brando in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film. A not unrelated fact: this is the sexiest a man has ever looked in the history of motion picture arts. 23-year-old Brando is half-feline, half-bull and fully enjoying the peak of his physical prowess. “He changed the concept of sex in America. Before him no man was ever considered erotic,” said author and intellectual Gore Vidal.
Brando’s injection of adrenalised macho glee into Tennessee Williams’ hauntingly tragic play takes away none of the drama as two characters who should never be brought together, Stanley and Blanche DuBois, are compelled to cohabit in the same New Orleans hothouse. Brando is having such a ball and we the audience (against all our noblest intentions) are having such a ball watching him that Stanley’s violent intentions towards the mentally fragile Blanche are not always front-and-centre. We lose ourselves in the hypnotic quality of Brando in a fitted t-shirt, arm muscles bulging, a boyish smile on his face as he does whatever the hell he likes.
Paul Mescal is well aware that anyone who plays Stanley is shadow-boxing with Brando, so it’s a bold swing at this blossoming stage in his career to do so for a short run at the Almeida Theatre. Tickets sold out at lightning speed. I wonder what those who fell for his soulful portraits of masculinity-in-crisis in Normal People and Aftersun made of a performance animated by hatred. Where Brando sublimated this facet beneath playful charm, Mescal leans into it. Eyes glitter with venom, spit flies, face pinkens and neck tendons bulge.
In the hours after the play, if I had seen Mescal coming towards me, I would have turned tail and fled. Perhaps this is a feature not a bug for a reluctant millennial heartthrob.
This aggression starts out as a disquieting note within an attitude of barely-concealed contempt. Mescal is aloof about his sex appeal, both as it strikes Blanche – when she arrives at the house of her estranged sister Stella and her husband Stanley, all frazzled and thirsty with a suitcase of faded gowns – and as it plays to an audience populated by his fans. The Almeida is a small venue that specialises in extra intimacy between performers and audiences. During last year’s run of Daddy, Jeremy O Harris’s play about sexual patronage in the LA art world, those in the first two rows were equipped with towels in anticipation of being splashed by the titular daddy, Claes Bang as he frolicked in the on-stage swimming pool. For Streetcar, director Rebecca Frecknell makes use of the narrow walkways, having performers dash around so close that panting can be heard. If Mescal was affected by the collective intake of breath that came whenever he changed clothes on stage, he shut it down. Not a drop of energy went towards indulging the erotic gaze; it was all focused on expressing a destructiveness that only grew until it eclipsed the room and sent us off into the night, disturbed.
Frecknell has adapted the play with deft modern touches to the staging and total fidelity to Tennessee Williams’ script. She uses rain in the opening and closing scenes (what is it with the Almeida and water) and deploys the whole cast to impressionistically show moments in Blanche’s past, underlining the amount of loss that she has suffered. The genius of Williams’ characterisations is such that subtle shifts in emphasis refresh well-trod roles. Is Blanche a deluded snob who seals her own fate by condescending to Stanley in his own home? Or is she a victim of sexist attitudes that mean her unremarkable transgressions (being in her 30s, promiscuity) are used to destroy her?
Olivier-award winning actress, Patsy Ferran, plays Blanche as quietly as it is possible to play a character with such ornate flourishes of eloquence. In her hands, Blanche is a woman ahead of her time. A line of original dialogue, excised from the Kazan film, has Blanche explain to her once-besotted, now-disillusioned paramour, Mitch, that her sexual habits grew as her mum lay dying because the opposite of death is desire. Her Blanche is, predominantly, a firebrand truth-teller who pretends to be a younger, dizzier version of herself as a strategy to escape a reality in which she has no money, no home, no job and is hanging by a sliver to sanity. If there is hope for Blanche, it lies in charming her way into a less oppressive domestic scenario.
This modest ambition is no Machiavellian scheme, even if it is painted as such by Stanley then Mitch. When I watch Romeo and Juliet, I hope against hope that Juliet’s letter will reach Romeo in time; in Streetcar I hope against hope that Blanche will elope with Mitch before all is lost, before that fateful, terrible rape heralded by Stanley saying, “We’ve had this date with each other since the beginning.”
Opposite the highly sympathetic Ferran, Mescal’s open cruelty lands all the more painfully, like an elephant trapping an extremely clever gerbil by the tail. A taste of the vitriol that Stanley has for Blanche’s sexual character bubbles up during a discussion about star signs. She reveals that her star-sign is Virgo “the virgin”. “HAAA!” booms Mescal with furious scorn.
The impact of his performance comes from the combination of technical brilliance with emotional coldness. He is loud, vital and fast, but he is not trying to build a heartfelt case for Stanley’s insecurities as a working class, second-generation immigrant, he does not want us to like Stanley, but – by god – he wants us to respect a death drive that knows no reasonable bounds.
Sure, the script tells us that Stanley had to battle Stella’s class reservations before she would love him and Blanche’s appearance threatens to restore that old painful dynamic. Nonetheless, his hatred for Blanche is more encompassing than his love for Stella. Paul Mescal has given us a vision of misogyny that is forcefully opaque. If Brando’s predator of choice was a tiger cub, Mescal’s is a tiger shark.
A Streetcar Named Desire runs until 4 February. All shows are currently sold out, however the Almeida Theatre explains two ways to try for returned tickets.
Published 18 Jan 2023