Preview: A Streetcar Named Desire

Actor Annabelle Apsion tells Andy Murray why the fractured relationships in the American South as portrayed in A Streetcar Named Desire are still a feature of modern life

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Tennessee Williams’ landmark play A Streetcar Named Desire is a rich, raw evocation of its time and place – that is, sweltering summer nights in New Orleans in 1947. So how does one go about breathing new life into it in 2012, in central Liverpool in the mid-winter?

But actor Annabelle Apsion is confident that Williams’ writing retains all its original bite and immediacy.

“Being in Liverpool, where people are very friendly and where you have these strong neighbourhood ties, it actually seems very relevant. Sex, violence, family relationships, mental illness – these are all things which people are a lot more open talking about now and which are featuring in the daily papers all the time. So actually, when you read the play you think, crikey, this seems as though it could have been written today.”

It’s been over 30 years since the Liverpool Playhouse last produced a Williams play. Streetcar is a personal favourite of Playhouse artistic director Gemma Bodinetz, who has had great success in recent years with revivals of American classics such as All My Sons and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Now it’s the turn of Williams’ masterclass in simmering family tensions. Apsion plays Eunice, neighbour and confidant to the Kowalskis: level-headed Stella, her mercurial husband Stanley, and also their house-guest, Stella’s older sister and Southern belle Blanche DuBois. In the heat, tempers flare and cultures clash. Needless to say, it’s not a perfect living situation.

Apsion has a wealth of theatre experience but is perhaps best known for television roles in Hillsborough, The Second Coming, and in particular a long run as Monica, Frank Gallagher’s estranged bisexual wife in Shameless. Indeed, it’s tempting to draw some parallels between the rough and ready neighbourhood shenanigans of the Channel 4 show and the world of Streetcar. In that respect, Williams’ preoccupations seem to be ahead of their time.

“Very much so,” agrees Apsion. “In the play, the sisters really love one another and there’s that triangle thing where a couple has another family member come and live with them. Now families are breaking up a lot – much more so than at that time.”

Key elements of Williams’ writing have become very familiar to contemporary audiences. “The women characters have very strong sexual appetites. I can’t remember a play of that era where they really show women as being kind of alive, sexual animals, as well as having intellects and emotions. There’s this thing about double standards: what’s appropriate for a man, what’s appropriate for a woman. I think it plays very well today.”

Cliché states that actors always prefer theatre to TV, but is that true?

“Well, to me this show is like the answer to my prayers. Because what happens a lot in television now is that the script’s very late, so they’re very behind. Or you just have one read-through, and then you turn up on your day to work and you discuss with the director how to do that scene. You go through it a couple of times, the lighting guys light it and then you shoot it. And sometimes the next day you think, Oh, I wish I’d done such and such a thing… Television is fun in other ways, but you don’t get the rehearsals. If you’re not in one particular scene you might never meet the actors in it. Whereas in theatre you get to grow the whole thing together. You can all contribute your ideas and kind of own it, and that’s a lovely feeling.”

So can 1940s New Orleans really be summoned into being in Liverpool in February? “I think when people go to the theatre you enter the world of make-believe. You suspend your disbelief. I shouldn’t imagine this is different from any other show.” Laughing, Apsion adds. “In fact, people might rather like to imagine that it’s very hot!”

A Streetcar Named Desire, 17 February-10 March, Liverpool Playhouse

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