Let’s not make comparisons; Elliot Cowan is not Marlon Brando, nor should he be. He is, however, a sculpted, hulking powerhouse of a man whose bulging biceps, wide shoulders and emanating sense of unpredictable danger fill the Donmar Warehouse’s stage in this new production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
As the working class Stanley, he is as bestial as Rachel Weisz’s Blanche DuBois imagines him to be, yet Cowan also lends him an air of fragility. He really knows no better than what he does, and his love for Ruth Wilson’s Stella is palpable.
While all eyes were on the performance of Hollywood star Weisz as she returned to the London stage in the role of the Southern Belle who has fallen on hard times and is forced to downsize her life and move in with her sister and brother-in-law, the supporting cast caught the eye.
Wilson’s Stella, a willowy doll in the arms of her looming, sculpted husband, has her emotions shredded to raggedy pieces, moving from a nice line in wry humouring to uncontrollable anguish. Barnaby Kay’s unhappy suitor Mitch similarly sees his heart crushed and descends from the sweetest character in Williams’s play into a quivering wreck of a man whose moral compass has been demagnetised.
“I don’t want realism, I want magic,” Blanche famously exclaims as her fragile web of self-deceit collapses in the face of a storm. Director Rob Ashford clearly had that phrase in mind when brewing his ideas for the play. His roots as a choreographer are visible as Blanche is literally haunted by both her past and her imagination.
Weisz, a bustling, breathy, hysterical Blanche – rarely seen without a drink in hand – has a touch of Norma Desmond about her, descending a spiral staircase in a bright red bathrobe fitting of any femme fatale, and hints at a decaying fairytale princess or a young Miss Havisham in the dress and tiara worn for the final shocking showdown with Stanley.
While the intimate Donmar auditorium brings the audience close enough to the action that they can smell Stanley’s sweat-soaked t-shirts, Christopher Oram’s design, dominated by a tall arching doorway, columns and that twisting staircase, lends the production a feeling of space. Adam Cork’s sound, encompassing dogs, soulful music, crickets, parties and the rumbling earth-tremors of the streetcars passing by, brings 1949 New Orleans to 2009 London.