Friday 22 September 2017

A Desire to be original

Long shadow: 'Streetcar' stars Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando and, left, Ethan McSweeny
Long shadow: 'Streetcar' stars Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando and, left, Ethan McSweeny

Maggie Armstrong

Ethan McSweeny, who's been brought over from New York to direct Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire in the Gate is at a particular advantage: he has never seen the movie.

"I've seen parts of the movie, but I've never sat down and watched it from beginning to end," says the celebrated director from Washington DC when we meet in the rehearsal room, between unmade bed, tattered partition and chaise longue.

Director Ethan McSweeny
Director Ethan McSweeny

"I got this job and I thought I'd better not go watch the movie right now because that gets lodged in your head. Cinema can be really influential, so when I'm working on a play I tend to avoid the movie. It's important to realise how your own ignorance can be a virtue."

So he has never seen Vivien Leigh depend on the kindness of strangers, or heard "Stella!" hollered up that stairwell. He has never seen Marlon Brando take off his T-shirt.

Instead of scouring Hollywood for his research, McSweeny travelled to the playwright's childhood home in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He went to New Orleans, where 28-year-old Williams moved in 1939, living in the French Quarter where Streetcar is set. McSweeny found a "fetid, brawling, hot city" with a "beautifully restored bohemia" similar to Temple Bar.

The 1951 movie adaptation of Streetcar is so intoxicating you could forget there was a play. But it was colossal when it opened on Broadway on December 3, 1947. It ran for two years and two weeks and won a Pulitzer Prize. Audiences were driven wild by the story of Blanche DuBois, a southern girl with a rum past who comes to visit her sister Stella and her husband, the dangerously carnal Stanley Kowalski.

Twenty-three-year-old Brando made his name as Stanley. His fame was iced when he played Stanley in the movie. Not so for McSweeny. "Brando still casts a long shadow over American actors. But I don't think he got all of it right," he says.

"I don't think he defined Stanley forever and all time. Jessica Tandy (who played Blanche on Broadway) couldn't stand being on stage with him because he would change the performance every night. He mumbled and he threw stuff around. Garrett's going to be magnificent."

That's Garrett Lombard from Gorey, Co Wexford, who he says has "great seething quality". There's also less risk that Lombard's Stanley will suffer a broken nose as Brando did during a playful punch-up with a stage-hand.

Streetcar last played at the Gate in 1998 with Frances McDormand as Blanche and Liam Cunningham as Stanley. For this production, whose cast includes Lia Williams and Catherine Walker, McSweeny will innovate with a blues clarinetist and a more impoverished set than other Streetcar directors have gone for.

"Garrett's got really interested in the fact that Stanley's a returning veteran of World War II, and that was a familiar type in the mid-40s," says McSweeny. "The behaviour he exhibits, they didn't have a word for it then, but it is a bit post-traumatic stress disorder."

McSweeny is freed in another way: he won't have to shroud the play's brutal ending in censorious mystique as Kazan did to agree with 1950s sexual mores. "It might be a classic, but it hasn't lost its capacity to shock."

Still, when's he getting out the DVD and the popcorn? "Probably some time between now and opening night, when I feel safe enough."

I think he'll be fine.

'A Streetcar Named Desire' opens on July 23 in the Gate Theatre. See www.gatetheatre.ie.

Irish Independent

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