A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) trailer.
Filmhouse are showing Elia Kazan’s 1951 screen version with a short film on the making of Scottish Ballet’s production, plus a Q&A session and score sample – Sun 15 Apr only @ 2:50pm.
There are many movies that contain definitive performances. Try to think of Casablanca without Bogart, Taxi Driver without De Niro or Yojimbo without Toshirô Mifune. Elia Kazan’s 1951 adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’ febrile, sweat soaked drama of sex, obsession and cruelty has two: Marlon Brando as the brooding, brutal force of nature Stanley Kowalski and Vivian Leigh as Blanche DuBois – the damaged southern belle clinging on to an antebellum world of honour and taste.
Brando had played the role in the original Broadway production – 65 years ago this December – alongside co-star Kim Hunter but Leigh replaced Jessica Tandy as Blanche, partially because Tandy was less well known, but also down to the inevitable comparisons the producers hoped would be drawn with that other Southern Belle Scarlett O’Hara. The result was a double act that electrified the screen with Blanche’s old fashioned manners fracturing like a porcelain teapot thrown against a wall under the strain of Stanley’s sadism. Brando was never more powerful, and alongside The Wild One, and Kazan’s On the Waterfront, it meant that the 1950s was a golden decade for the actor; it would be twenty years before he came close to matching the level of these performances.
Leigh’s performance is all the more poignant for present day audiences, aware as they are of the parallels between the damaged psyche of Blanche and the actress’ real life fragile mental state. The long shadow cast by Brando and Leigh’s incarnations has meant that whilst some of Williams’ other work has been remade for the screen – allowing previously censored elements to be shown – a remake of Streetcar has never been contemplated. Even on stage, the celluloid version dominates – and every Stanley and every Blanche knows they will be compared to the black and white original (and usually found wanting).
One way of avoiding odious comparisons is to translate the story into a new art-form, which is what Scottish Ballet have done with their new touring production. Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa sees this as a great chance to push the language of dance forward: “from the moment I first read A Streetcar Named Desire, I knew I wanted to make it into a ballet. It is a wonderful challenge to reinterpret the intense drama and complex psychology of the characters, and the chemistry of the collaboration is incredible”.
For director Nancy Meckler, who has worked for both the National Theatre and the RSC, as well as running her own company Shared Experience, the challenge of working within a new medium has been inspiring. “Coming into the world of dance from a theatre background is a new and thrilling adventure”, says Meckler. “I have hugely enjoyed the process of working with Annabelle to explore exciting ways to re-imagine Tennessee Williams’ passionate story through the imagery of dance”.
Meckler’s viewpoint is underlined by that of Scottish Ballet’s Artistic Director Ashley Page who sees the production as “an attempt to approach narrative from an alternative starting point, and to examine how the different energy of a theatre director might trigger a new reaction from the dancers”.
The sweltering heat, the intense emotions, the sexual tensions, Streetcar has always been a visceral experience whether on screen or stage. Meckler and Lopez Ochoa assisted by composer Peter Salem‘s sultry, jazz infused music and the faded southern beauty of New Orleans recreated by designer Niki Turner hope to bring the sensuality of dance to this most physical of Williams’ work. Audiences across Scotland will get to see if they exorcise the ghosts of Brando and Leigh.