The American Struggle
Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire
Berliner Ensemble | Berlin
directed by Michael Thalheimer
When working on classic plays, Michael Thalheimer has a reputation for steadfastly cutting and condensing text, yet he never alters or adds to what he’s been given. We see the effectiveness of this method in this canny production of A Streetcar Named Desire. With a play that is so of its time, one would expect to hear references or turns of phrase that jar, but this is pleasingly not the case. Through sparsity of words and objects, this adaptation rings clear as a bell.
Olaf Altmann’s striking design has the performers literally engaged in an uphill battle; a physical representation of the characters clambering for the American Dream. Whether Andreas Döhler as Stanley is clinging to the ceiling of their cramped, askew domicile or Cordelia Wege as Blanche is hurling herself up the slope only to slide back down, defeated, the physical restrictions put on the actors allows for a constant but varied degree of tension throughout. It is a nice meta-theatrical touch in showcasing a struggle for both character and actor.
Despite the outdated social dynamics of the play, this production showcases the strength of the theatre’s acting ensemble. Döhler gives a particularly engaging performance as Stanley. He has a calm and calculated air which goes beyond a basic reading of this infamous character. Meanwhile, Sina Martens brings some complexity to the role of his wife, Stella. Rather than being a pawn in the conflict between Stanley and Blanche, Stella has her own stakes in Martens’s interpretation. The character has her own sexual desire, palpable in her post-coital haze following Stanley’s violent outburst and their reconciliation.
With a play rooted in antiquated values, the question remains whether a new production can reach a modern audience. In this case, the archaic female tropes of the Southern Belle and the woman defined by her brutish, violent husband, cannot be subverted to give a reading of these characters that will reflect a modern audience, or at least, this production shows little interest in doing so. This goes for the play’s depiction of Blanche’s psychological distress too. The performance closes with Blanche scribbling on her face, neck and wrists with blood red lipstick while the “men in white coats” loom outside the apartment in wait. An outmoded perspective that, left unchallenged, is almost offensively simplistic.
This is an impressive and intelligent take on an American classic, nonetheless it does not seem to live and breathe as an urgent provocation for a modern audience.
photo | ©Matthias Horn