Of all the aspects of Rob Ashford's production of Tennessee Williams' play which can be praised - and there are several - I am sure that it is Rachel Weisz’s performance as Blanche DuBois that will be best remembered when the house lights come up on closing night.
As delicate as the Chinese lantern she uses to shade a naked bulb, Weisz’s Blanche is waif-like, easy to shatter – the ethereal silks and chiffons she wears seem more robust than her mental state.
When Blanche arrives at her sister Stella’s house at the start of the play, everything about her is at odds with her surroundings. She demands old world manners and chivalry, but is met with the brutal power of her “ape-like” brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, and the overt sexuality and occasional brutality of his relationship with Stella. She yearns for space and air, but has to endure oppressive New Orleans heat. She even looks out of place, wearing blues, reds and whites while all around her is a murky ochre.
This is a likable Blanche – or at least one that you feel sorry for rather than irritated by. She lies constantly (preferring magic to realism, of course) but there is something endearing about her, and her depression and anxieties stemming from the suicide of her husband as a very young woman are in evident from the moment she steps shakily into the Kowalski household. It is hard to hold mood swings and invention against a woman who has reason to be sad, angry and tired with reality.
Weisz’s Blanche is complemented by a wonderful turn from Ruth Wilson, who equally makes Stella an appealing character. She may live with a man who strikes her on a semi-regular basis but, for right or wrong, she never comes across as a victim - and with a mountain of a husband in Elliot Cowan’s Stanley, that shows that this Stella has a core of steel to match her smiley exterior.
Cowan certainly inhabits the overwhelming physicality of Stanley, then, and his own dual personality that veers from joker to raging drunk seems to mirror that of his sister-in-law – whose own mood is similarly affected by alcohol. It is just a shame that his wavering accent sometimes distracts from the performance.
Blanche’s tragedy and decline is certainly placed firmly at the centre of this production, perhaps to the point that other aspects of the play are not given as much prominence as they could - but it has the benefit of showcasing a wonderful performance from Weisz.