Is it possible to write a play or a novel set in New Orleans which is just that (a play or a novel set in New Orleans) ? It doesn’t seem so. Perhaps to write literature based in that fabled city the words must be dripping in the muddy Mississippi water, steeped in the humid air, echoing of loud trumpets pouring out of jazz bars.
A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play may well be the quintessential play about New Orleans and Scottish Ballet’s superb 2012 production gives us what is perhaps the holy grail of any adaptation; it is faithful to this beloved text and yet also enhances it, using this unique medium to view the words through a fresh lens.

The production’s faithfulness to Williams’ text is one of its strong suits; it does what narrative dance is so good at, capturing often wordless emotions and nuance with movement and doesn’t bog itself down in too many abstractions. For a play that leaves so much exposition delicately posed between the lines of dialogue, this show is fleshed out with backstory, giving more sympathy and motivation to Blanche. It does not rely on its audience to fill in the blanks but instead devotes much of the first act to fleshing out Blanche’s life before she arrives on that Streetcar to the cramped apartment of Stella and Stanley.

Niki Turner’s clever set perfectly conveyed the faded elegance of the antebellum era in the South that crumbled into decay and industrialisation and it was ingeniously used by the dancers to create furniture, factory production lines and even the eponymous streetcar. 

A jazz score, by Peter Salem, turns melancholy then upbeat and also benefits from following clues in the text. It provides a soundscape that could be the soundtrack to the Big Easy itself. I particularly enjoyed the extra dimension provided by the hisses, groans and shouts of everyday life that so perfectly convey this city.

Sophie Martin was a standout Stella, matching Erik Cavallari as the sexually aggressive Stanley in passion and earthiness, all the better to expose her sister Blanche as a puff of smoke in the wind. They are in and of the world, they give in to the lure of the flesh that Blanche denies herself, such an important and vivid contrast in this city of all cities; the New Orleans of Tennessee Williams is an earthy place, an assault on the senses, a paradise of pleasures. Blanche, aided by her pointe shoes and her array of vivid pink outfits, stands apart from the rest of the cast like a flamingo in a duck pond. She's a perfect theatrical creation; living in a state of elegant illusion and fantasy, and this was cleverly conveyed by both the direction and the choreography. Eve Mutso was a delicate and fragile Blanche DuBois, devolving into mental breakdown as the narrative progresses. Her languorous dance quality seems perfect to convey a steamy, sweaty summer in New Orleans, and I only wish that the assembled corps de ballet had shown more heat, sweat and slightly more swagger too.

I could attribute the success of the production to the dual efforts of the choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and the director Nancy Meckler. It is clear in the way that the show is equally strong in its dramatic sense as its choreographic nuance that this collaboration is a fruitful one. A combination of dramaturge and movement maker can only be a great way to produce excellent narrative dance, as this production admirably shows.

But the ultimate congratulations to this production; its tightness, its satisfaction, the way it hangs together so perfectly surely belongs to the poet and playwright himself. A Streetcar Named Desire has long been a masterpiece of twentieth century literature, and so it is perhaps not a surprise that it should be able to be adapted in a different medium so successfully. A plea, for choreographers everywhere: please, please, please mine the infinite depths of the literature that humans have created for centuries now and turn those words into movement for the stage. There are clearly immeasurable riches down there for all of us.