Preview: A Streetcar Named Desire

In Maxine Peake’s return to the Royal Exchange she plays troubled character Blanche DuBois, writes Saskia Murphy

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When A Streetcar Named Desire made its debut on Broadway in 1947, New York Times reviewer Brooks Atkinson wrote that the play revealed Tennessee Williams as “a genuinely poetic playwright whose knowledge of people is honest and thorough and whose sympathy is profoundly human.”

The play stirred up controversy overnight and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama a year later, before being translated into a 1951 feature film starring Marlon Brando.

Williams’ troubled protagonist Blanche DuBois has been portrayed on stage and screen by a catalogue of accomplished actors including Vivien Leigh, Gillian Anderson and Jessica Lange, and now Maxine Peake is preparing to take on the role as part of a long-term creative collaboration with artistic director Sarah Frankcom at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

“Blanche is very complex, but I think people are,” says Peake ahead of the performance. “It’s her history. She’s had this tragic incident with marrying a young man who she obviously adored, and she discovered him in bed with another man. Then she confronted him about it and he shot himself. Then it was a downward spiral for her. She was a very attractive woman – she traded a lot on her looks, that was her currency and now she feels that ebbing away she doesn’t feel like she has a place in the world.”

Peake, whose previous collaborations with Frankcom have included her playing Hamlet and Strindberg’s frenzied Miss Julie, says getting to know Williams has played a vital part in understanding Blanche DuBois. “The more you read about Tennessee Williams, the more you realise that there is a lot of Tennessee Williams in Blanche. A lot of his complexity and battle with life and his demons are sort of threaded through.”

Peake, who is taking dialect classes to hone Blanche’s distinctive New Orleans drawl, says the part felt like a natural progression after last year’s critically acclaimed performance of The Skriker, written by Caryl Churchill.

“I’ve been offered the part a few times previously and never felt quite ready,” says Peake. “And then when Sarah [Frankcom] came along and asked if I would be interested I said ‘yes, let’s give it a go.’ It felt like a sort of natural progression after Hamlet and The Skriker.”

One of the main challenges, says Peake, is presenting Blanche’s perceived alcoholism and creating a believable version of the character. She says: “I read a letter written by Williams and he said Blanche is not an alcoholic, but as the play starts she obviously has a dependency on drink. I have been doing lots of research into alcoholism and how that manifests itself in functioning alcoholics, non-functioning alcoholics and addiction. Sarah was talking about the fact that Blanche does appear to lie quite a lot, but part of the alcoholism, maybe, is hallucinations. I think she completely believes herself one hundred per cent. She has created her own truth.

“The main challenge is expressing all the anxiety and psychological issues going on with Blanche. She’s so layered – it’s absorbing all that information and making it as detailed as possible.

“That’s the thing about the Royal Exchange: if you’re not on it the audience can tell. You can tell when an audience aren’t buying what you’re doing – you can feel them pulling away from you. It should be electric, that play.”

A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Royal Exchange Theatre from 8 September until 15 October

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