Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire ★★★★★

Scottish Ballet’s evocative interpretation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire returns to London for the first time since 2015.

Scottish Ballet‘s reputation for creating stunning, engaging narrative ballets has grown over the years with triumphs such Coppélia, Swan Lake and especially their take on The Crucible. As such, Sadler’s Wells audiences have been eagerly awaiting for a London stop of their A Streetcar Named Desire tour. 

Adapted from Tennessee Williams’ most-noted drama, the descent of Southern Belle, Blanche DuBois, is packed with the fabric of an evocative narrative: tragedy, forbidden love, alcoholism, lust, lies, toxic masculinity, divided loyalties and more. Faced with this heady brew, director Nancy Meckler and choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa have crafted the potential story elements into an irresistible, fevered, compelling piece of ballet.

Image by Andy Ross

Like their take on The Crucible, Scottish Ballet has added a prelude to illuminate the events which Williams seeds throughout his original drama. In the play, it begins with the arrival of Blanche DuBois, at the New Orleans home of her sister Stella and her husband Stanley Kowalski,  bringing with her a suitcase of secrets which the playwright unpacks throughout the drama.

Since the absolute focus of this telling of Streetcar is on Blanche, here the prelude takes as the starting point, her carefree, halcyon days at the family home, a stately plantation in Mississippi called Belle Reve.  This idyllic life continues with Blanche’s marriage to a handsome young man, Alan… Until she discovers him with another man. Her rejection of Alan leads to his suicide – an act that sets in train the inexorable spiral of her descent.

Without the often-overwrought dialogue of Williams’ melodrama, Scottish Ballet’s (almost) wordless Streetcar is deftly able to mine the deep emotional undercurrents that run through the piece. There are gloriously-evocative, visual set pieces throughout. When Stella leaves Belle Reve, a series of family photographs sees individual members of the family dropping to the floor in each subsequent photograph until there is only Blanche left posing in front of their grand house. Designer Nicola Turner brilliantly turns the fall of Belle Reve into a literal collapse as a huge wall of crates painted as the mansion clatter unexpectedly to the ground. 

Image by Andy Ross

An equally eye-catching sequence follows a now-alcohol-dependent Blanche enjoying the company (and money) of a series of male strangers at a seedy motel. The corps de ballet representing the local townspeople descend to run Blanche out of town. Dancing in jagged, aggressive unison, their lines form an intimidating block, their angular movements in contrast to Blanche’s attempts at classical ballet. Through the rows of the mob, Blanche’s suitcase is slid towards her and she leaves in ignominy. 

The juxtaposition between the refined, grand origins of the DuBois sisters and the rough, carnal, blue-collar world of New Orleans is strikingly delineated on all fronts. Tim Mitchell‘s lighting design gives life in Belle Reve a tasteful, clean feel into which shadows creep but by contrast New Orleans pulses in technicolour with sweaty, sensual reds and ochres. Musically, the peerless Peter Salem‘s soundscape makes a parallel journey. Blanche’s wedding in Mississippi has waltzes played on formal strings, with discordant undertones beginning to seap through. By the time Blanche arrives at Elysian Fields, the score is a relaxed, breathy jazz often overlapped by the soundscape of police sirens, streetcars or urban noise. Even Lopez Ocha’s choreography reflects the dramatic change of circumstances, most tellingly in a sequence representing the courtship of Stanley (Evan Loudon) and Stella (Claire Souet). Even though there is a mutual attraction from the off, their dance styles are different. Stella’s movement has the grace of classical ballet, but Stanley walks in a decidedly grounded manner. Souet’s arabesques or glissades are increasingly interrupted by Loudon by his enveloping and caressing her in more of a jazz-dance style. By the end, she has become restricted, only ever airborne if lifted by him, reflecting the control and coercion that he will exert over his wife. 

Loudon brings an unusual inscrutability to the role of Stanley. Most of the time, there’s a peacocking, Alpha posturing, highlighted in the wonderfully choreographed bowling match. At other times, his Stanley has a disconcerting blankness that makes him impossible to read and suggests the danger which lies never far from the surface. 

Image by Zoe Martin

But ultimately this production of Streetcar revolves around Blanche DuBois and what an extraordinary, darkly-beautiful performance is gifted by Marge Hendrick. In a recent interview, Hendrick explained that she had taken acting lessons to assist playing her dream role, Blanche DuBois. These certainly have paid off. Unquestionably Hendrick is an exquisite dancer. You only need look at her breathtaking développés to know that’s true. But her ability to inhabit and convey every inch of Blanche on her long and painful decline is mesmerising. From reaching towards the lightbulb at the start to recoiling from it when Mitch (an excellent, likeable Thomas Edwards) exposes the truth, Hendrick offers such range and detail. Her fluttering hands reflecting her fragility but also withdrawal shakes. The little seated rond de jambe she attempts to catch Stanley’s eye. Or the way that her posture dissolves when drunk, as she pours herself from one drooping position to another. 

One striking element of this production is how vivid and unflinching are the scenes with sexual content, both consensual and violently-forced. The make-up sex between Stanley and Stella is so charged, reader, you may feel the need to light up a cigarette afterwards. In horrific contrast, the scene where Stanley decides to humiliate and sexually dominate Blanche will make you sick to your stomach. Whilst it never crosses the line into becoming gratuitously graphic, emotionally it lands like a punch. To watch Marge Hendrick, whose elegance and grace is witnessed at the beginning, left crawling across the bare stage unable to stand is an unforgiving, distressing sight not easily forgotten.

Reviewers often bandy hyperbole blithely around, but A Streetcar Named Desire is an unequivocal masterclass in storytelling with Scottish Ballet showing how narrative ballet should be done!

More unmissable ballet from a company at the top of its game – ★★★★★ 5 stars

A Streetcar Named Desire tickets

Scottish Ballet's A Streetcar Named Desire runs at Sadler's Wells until Sunday 19 May

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