To the outsider, Liverpool is perplexing. Prior to the Second World War, its population stood at almost 850,000, a city proud of its industrial achievements and remarkable architectural heritage, but marred by the most destitute poverty and a shameful slave-trading history. The city has experienced decline and even desolation like no other: its population dropped by more than 50% and it was scarred, physically and psychologically, by the Toxteth riots.
But in the midst of such travails, Liverpool has been home to one of the most vibrant cultural scenes in Britain. All know of the Beatles and the musical explosion in the 1960s; many are aware of the accompanying literary outburst of Mersey Sound, in which Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten almost redefined attitudes to the writing of poetry. But fewer, beyond the North West, are aware of its theatrical excellence, and the long and distinguished history of its Everyman and Playhouse theatres. All around Liverpool are the signs of renaissance, in its physical surroundings –including iconic buildings such as the recently opened Museum of Liverpool –but it is in its cultural life that the city’s rebirth is most striking.
Run jointly by a non-profit making trust, the Playhouse – a former music hall – and the Everyman Theatre – currently being rebuilt at a cost of more than £20 million – have a reputation for producing innovative and high quality productions of new and classic writing. Recent productions have included Jonathan Pryce in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, a co-production with the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith of Ghost Stories and a stage version of the classic Ealing Comedy The Ladykillers, all of which have gone on to successful West End runs. A new version of Henry V is currently in production with The Globe Theatre, whilst many of the Everyman and Playhouse’s other productions have received equally glowing praise, such as last year’s version of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (starring Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City), Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui and Moliere’s Tartuffe.
So it was with a sense of anticipation that I headed to Liverpool on a wet Saturday in early March to catch Tennessee Williams’ intensely poetic tragedy A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s a play which I’ve read previously but never taught, nor, must I confess, have I seen more than a few moments of the 1951 film version staring Marlon Brando.
For a theatre with such a reputation, however, the Playhouse’s fabric is quite disappointing, and seems almost to parallel the city’s own shabbiness. It fronts one of the more downmarket city squares. Although largely Victorian, it is accessed via a woeful annexe from the 1970s, an inelegant combination of glass and concrete, a crammed foyer and a labyrinthine layout. Inside the main house, the aesthetics are more mixed: the walls are painted in a noxious, toxic-looking shade of turquoisey blue, but this was clearly once opulent on the grandest of scales, rather like a scaled down version of the London Coliseum, with ornate plasterwork, stalls, a grand circle, a gallery and seats for over a thousand. And yet there is an intimacy to the whole place, bringing actor and audience together, particularly appropriate for a most personal of tragedies.
From the start, this was a production of the highest quality, and it was interesting to note how even the jazz being played in the bars and front of house started to take the audience away from Liverpool to the heat of a summer in New Orleans. Despite the limitations of the building, this was a production in which attention to detail was noticeable.
Moreover, Gideon Davey’s design captured the essence of the poverty-stricken, soul destroying, hopeless America. We were first presented with the exterior to the apartment, with iconic iron fire escape staircases and the flashing lights of neon signs. Then, as the play unfolded, subtle use of a revolve took us to its interior: two bare rooms and, somewhere off stage, a bathroom, so central to the plot. Detailing was well observed: a refrigerator, a table and chairs, two beds. Beautifully and accurately costumed by Jacquie Davies, the initial impression was almost of an Edward Hopper painting. This was a lonely yet emotionally fraught, claustrophobic world. And, between scenes and even in scenes, was the haunting melody of troubled jazz, and ever, rumbling away at key moments, the clattering and tinny sounding bell of a streetcar – a streetcar named desire. Peter Coyte’s music and Fergus O’Hare’s sound design, unobtrusive yet ever evocative, was a definite highlight.
Amanda Drew’s portrayal of Blanche was throughout riveting. Glamorous, alluring, attractive, a breath of fresh air, she arrived at her sister Stella’s apartment apparently a successful teacher, but one who had inexplicably taken time off during term. But as her tragedy gradually unfolded, Amanda Drew presented Blanche as a very fragile, vulnerable victim, scarred by the trauma of an unfaithful husband. And yet. Yet, like Gatsby, she remained, almost to the end, a beacon of light, one who pandered to the greatest of dreams. Who lived for beauty, even if it was built on a lie. In the final moments of the play, as the wreckage of her life, the wreckage she had wrought on others and, just as painfully, the wreckage wrought on her became manifest, the pain of Blanche and her sister Stella – ironically cradling a new born baby – became almost too much. This might well have been a matinee performance, but there was no sense of the actors holding back, and the direction of Gemma Bodinetz (also the Everyman and Playhouse’s Artistic Director) certainly brought an emotional depth to the characters.
This was particularly evident in Sam Troughton’s role as Stanley – at once brutal and self-righteous but a devoted and pragmatic husband, he was himself battling, like Blanche, with desire. Troughton’s performance was finely judged: like Blanche, he, too, was portrayed with a real sense of complexity and of particular note were his reactions during the scene in which Blanche roundly condemns him for being almost subhuman. He might well have none of Blanche DuBois’ poetry, but here was an essentially well meaning man, threatened by Blanche’s arrival – with devastating results.
I was also impressed by Stella (Leanne Best), and her portrayal of Stella’s simplicity: her love for sister, husband and child, and her sense of divided loyalties. By the play’s end, when Stella wept with her new born child on the fire escape to the apartment, we fully shared in her terrible pain. Between Blanche, Stanley and Stella, we saw three different outlooks, with both strengths and flaws.A strong supporting cast included Matthew Flynn’s sympathetic understanding of Mitch in his representation of Mitch’s relationship with Blanche: a man naive in his grasp of love and of women, inept and awkward, and ultimately selfish, who continued to play cards as the doctor arrived to deal with Blanche.
Beneath the gloom of the play’s poverty stricken setting, however, shone a sense of poetry, whether in Blanche’s past as an English teacher, her love for the verse of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or her gentle touches in the grim apartment, most memorably the fragile paper lampshade. By the end, whether in the final image of Stella and her child, or our sense of outrage, fear and sympathy for Blanche, this was a deeply moving production.
If this production is anything to go by, Liverpool’s cultural life is indeed vibrant, and the Everyman and Playhouse ought to feel proud that in these financially tough times, a regional theatre is not only thriving but producing such strong work. I am looking forward to my next visit to the North West.