The week in theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire; Watch on the Rhine | Theatre

This Streetcar is transporting. The casting of Rebecca Frecknall’s production guaranteed a sellout, and has produced three bewitching performances: Paul Mescal in the part that Brando and his T-shirt played in the 1951 movie, alongside Patsy Ferran, stepping in late for an injured Lydia Wilson, as Blanche, and Anjana Vasan as sister Stella. Yet the central triumph is Frecknall’s ability to find the pulse of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play. Confusion and desire are not embodied in a single performance: they sweep the stage, pushing the action along.

Frecknall has been most acclaimed for her massive production of Cabaret (still running at the Playhouse). Yet her real breakthrough was her 2018 reimagining of Williams’s little-known Summer and Smoke, also featuring Ferran and Vasan: Frecknall weirded the play, making it look both internal and like Streetcar’s twin. This production has a similar, though more far-reaching effect.

Familiar gestures and setting are banished: there is no languorous fanning, less muscular swelter, no tangle of iron stairways. Madeleine Girling’s design, coming and going under Lee Curran’s lighting, is bare but delivers a vital point by being in the round: the action is seen from more than one point of view. Vasan’s Stella, often sunk into herself, her voice low-pitched, is an arresting presence, in part a warning of where love can take you. Mescal, straight-shouldered but rapid-moving, is a terrific blend of tinderbox and damage. He is on guard as soon as he meets his wife’s sister – the bond between the women is put across with exceptional force, as the key to all their relationships. He howls with righteous rage and pain at being called a Polack; yet you see him gathering horrible strength from his male drinking companions: Blanche’s rape is fuelled by a mob.

‘Arresting’: Anjana Vasan, right, as Stella with Paul Mescal. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Meanwhile the marvellous Ferran, younger than usual for the woman depending on the kindness of strangers, brings a particular wit to Blanche: she fuses innocence and snobbery, and raises an uneasy laugh with her fastidious reference to Edgar Allan Poe as she rolls her eyes at her sister’s arrangements. She seems propelled by the velocity of her words, her own laughter so forced and hard that you can almost see it hanging in the air.

Frecknall’s training as a dancer infuses her production. Not only in balletic episodes (she sometimes overdoes the bending of limbs) but in the choreographing that groups and scatters the cast to a distinctive rhythm. Music and sound – from a band and singer above the action – are essential here: crooning, humming, whistling, the clash of cymbals, the thump of drums, an inchoate clamour; a mix of inner and outer chaos. It is noise that finally overcomes Blanche: in a wonderful touch, the people who take her off to the asylum are the musicians: chords, not cords, will bind her.

In 1941, eight months before Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the second world war, Watch on the Rhine – a demand that America take action against fascism – was produced. It is shrewd of the Donmar (wake up, Arts Council, which took the theatre’s grant away, while diminishing the Almeida’s funding) to revive Lillian Hellman’s play now. Ellen McDougall’s handsome, convinced production speaks to today’s fear of the rise of dictatorship and new fissures between east and west.

It is, though, a play strangely at odds with itself. Hellman was both wit and political visionary – not necessarily exclusive categories, but in her case uncomfortably manacled to each other. Her call to arms is unassailable, its execution sometimes stiff. An American grande dame is visited by her daughter, who has married and had a family with a German resistance fighter; the plot turns on betrayal, escape and violence; its point is the awakening of the new world to the old.

Hellman’s play contains historical events and figures (characters based on Romanian diplomat Prince Antoine Bibesco and the anti-fascist activist Muriel Gardiner) but the action is invented and its realism lessened by the dramatist’s reluctance to make her hero Jewish: she was wary of provoking American antisemitism. McDougall’s production ingeniously shades the characterisation with musical director Josh Middleton’s score, replacing classical fragments with a Jewish socialist anthem. An early nod to the interweaving of fiction and real political horror is given here by displaying credits from the 1943 Bette Davis film.

The dialogue is often set-piece, and John Light and Carlyss Peer are more rigid than even the rigidity of their characters require. Yet memorable phrases are scattered throughout: I would put up with a lot of duff lines for the comment of the matriarch in her drawing room as she recognises the truth of Nazi brutality: “We’ve been shaken out of the magnolias.”

Patricia Hodge in Watch on the Rhine.
Patricia Hodge embodies ‘haughty certainty’ in Watch on the Rhine. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Memorable performances too. Patricia Hodge authoritatively embodies the grand grandmother – indulged, once adored, bristling and barking as an elderly widow. Her haughty certainty is finally cracked, but she does not crumble: she remains herself, though her golden roll of hair is slightly bowed. There is an outstanding performance from Bertie Caplan as her spookily eloquent young grandson; hyper-alert but with his childhood withered by the threat of persecution. Uneven but fascinating, this delivers history when it was news.

Star ratings (out of five)
A Streetcar Named Desire
★★★★★
Watch on the Rhine ★★★★