We were delighted to learn back in late July, that one of our most talented actresses, and TBB Treasure Sharon Duncan-Brewster, was cast as Stella Kowalski in the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre’s current production of Tennessee Williams’ 1948 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Streetcar Named Desire.
This is a candid story, taking its name from the New Orleans Desire Line, which ran streetcars to and from Desire Street from 1920-48. Williams wrote shocking scenes, exploring financial ruin, marital violence, sexual and emotional abuse, madness, and used gritty dialogue – bold for its day.
Duncan-Brewster was thoroughly aware of what she was taking on – the importance of being cast as the beaten wife of Stanley (Ben Batt) and little sister of Blanche DuBois (Maxine Peake). She told the Manchester Evening News, “From the first day of rehearsals you know it’s going to be deep and you’re going to have to go to uncomfortable places… Williams has an understanding of families and the fragility of human nature and people, and what we study about Streetcar at A-level doesn’t even touch the truth of it… The subject matter is so dark and deep and truthful; unless you’ve lived, had a hard life, and become an experienced grown up, it’s only then you’ll discover the truth of this play… It’s devastating, and it’s not going to blow over like stories do in soaps.”
It also reunited her with old friend Peake, whom she has known since their teen years attending reading groups for young actors at the Royal Exchange together. What she didn’t do was comment on the challenge of colour-blind casting in a play which, quite aside from substance addiction, mental illness and the other issues, is written from the sympathetic perspective of the reduced circumstances of two sisters brought up on a once-flourishing plantation, which had enriched generations of slave-owners.
On the one hand, it would be easy to simply give it no weight whatsoever and accept the play as presented. On the other, director Sarah Frankcom might have developed the story in an attempt to satisfactorily address the race problems within the play. After all, Sandra Cole plays Black Woman, Etta Fusi plays Mexican woman, Youseff Kerkour plays Harold Mitchell and Reece Noi plays a Young Collector, all alongside Peake, Batt, Ryan Pope and Michelle Butterly. It could just as easily be the case that, Frankcom’s Du Bois sired a mixed race child and called her Stella…
A Daily Telegraph theatre critic attended press night last week and submitted his review for publishing. He didn’t like the play – the interpretation or the staging. He gave it 2/5 stars, and inexplicably, he had a REAL problem with Duncan-Brewster’s casting. But, not for the considered, perhaps understandable reasons given above. He wrote:
“That accomplished black actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster plays Blanche’s sister Stella – the two are evidently not “related”. Go figure. As ravishing to look at as ever, with her angular beauty, strong cheekbones and piercing eyes, [Maxine] Peake resembles a bird of paradise trapped in a drab conference centre.”
The choice of phrasing, immediately followed by a superlatively complimentary description of Peake’s looks rams home his meaning, if it was even possible to have missed it before. It reads like he has been affronted by the very thought of Duncan-Brewster’s juxtaposition to Peake, compelling him to commit the source of his provocation to print! The offence is so deep that he forgets that theatre is show, dramaturgy, performance, posturing, pretending. He forgets the allowance of dramatic and poetic license, re-imagining, interpretation, and he loses perspective completely. How the Conservative-supporting Telegraph theatre editor allowed such writing to represent their brand is quite shocking so late in 2016. Oh. Wait.
Astonishingly, he makes no further mention of Duncan-Brewster and fails to comment on her performance, which, according to other attendees of the same press night performance, said:
“Sharon Duncan-Brewster brings real depth to the complexity of Stella and is toe-to-toe with both Blanche and Stanley when called upon,”
“Sharon Duncan-Brewster is an ideal foil for her fragile sister and blunt instrument of a husband,”
“Sharon Duncan-Brewster is a top-notch Stella, torn by conflicting loves for her husband and her sister. (Does it matter that Blanche DuBois — “It means ‘white woods’” — has a black sister? Maybe for about two seconds.)”
“And Sharon Duncan-Brewster (pictured above) lends a refreshing confidence to Stella, too, bouncing back from her husband’s bruisings.”
“Compliant sister Stella, the excellent Sharon Duncan-Brewster, has been playing along all her life.”
“Sharon Duncan-Brewster is a beautiful, utterly persuasive Stella: generous, widely smiling and limber, sliced open by love of her husband. As she and Blanche square up to each other, snidey about each other’s sex lives, they sound like sisters; their voices take on the self-same growl.”
And, if the image is anything to go by, we think Duncan-Brewster looks HOTTTT!
Whilst acknowledging aspects that didn’t work for them, reviewers with the reputable The Guardian, The Stage, WhatsOnStage and The Reviews Hub all gave the production 4/5 stars. The Financial Times and Manchester Evening News gave it 3/5.
Think of Lenny Henry and Adrian Lester’s Othello, think of Noma Dumezweni’s Hermione, think of every classical play Talawa and similar theatre companies have produced over the years… and let’s support THE black actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster!
You can read the full review here http://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/even-maxine-peake-cant-save-this-gimmicky-streetcar–review/
A Streetcar Named Desire opened on September 13th and is booking until October 15th 2016. For tickets, visit the Royal Exchange website