It seemed strange to come out of the theatre humming “It’s Only a Paper Moon” when a few moments before there had been brutality, madness and a horrific rape scene on stage. But that 1933 song runs throughout the scenario of Scottish Ballet’s new production of A Streetcar named Desire – as it did in the original play – reminding of the difference between reality and dreaming.

Adam Blyde as Mitch and Eve Mutso as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire © Andrew Ross
Adam Blyde as Mitch and Eve Mutso as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire
© Andrew Ross

The last time Scottish Ballet came south of the border, it showed off its pure classicism. Now, as he prepares to step down after ten years as artistic director, Ashley Page’s swansong at Sadler’s Wells Theatre is anything but downy and soft. In this work his dancers present a gritty, raw and physically demanding contemporary view, exchanging the sharp, knife-cutting dialogue of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play (and quadruple Oscar-winning film) with strong dance motifs and actions. The result is part ballet, part Broadway musical (elements of West Side Story come to mind), packaged with modern movement and actions. Page commissioned the work from noted film and theatre director Nancy Meckler and international choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, along with composer Peter Salem whose original score is enlarged by the sounds of trolley-cars, cicadas and general bustle.

And what a lot they pack in to just 100 minutes. The central character is the fading southern belle Blanche DuBois, whose downward spiral into alcoholism and insanity is graphically depicted. Rather than using flashbacks to show the reason for her downfall, the ballet begins with it – after first offering a brief glimpse of her standing still, drawn to a naked lightbulb like a silly moth, knowing what will happen if she gets too close, but unable to stop herself. We then go back in time to see her as a carefree young woman with a happy family, friends and enormous Southern plantation mansion. She meets a handsome young man, they marry, and while she is dancing with her sister at the wedding, he encounters a male guest, and is suddenly torn between his bride and new love. So he shoots himself. Things go from bad to worse. Sister Stella leaves to seek her fortune in New Orleans, family members die one by one in a poignant scene, (How do you get ‘dead’ bodies off stage? Get them to roll slowly like tumbleweed blown into the wings – very effective), and the mighty mansion utters a loud rumble and crashes to the ground, leaving a rubble of crates (which are cleverly used as props throughout the ballet). While Stella hits the high life – or rather, the lower-class life – in the big city, meeting and dancing a great jive number with the coarse Stanley Kowalski, Blanche is passing her time entertaining businessmen and a bow-legged cowboy in a sleazy hotel. She hits rock bottom after seducing a young boy, and is drummed out of town. That’s when she catches the streetcar, “destination Desire”, to go and stay with her sister and husband in their tiny stifling apartment. This is where the play and film begin, and Blanche’s tormented mind and neurotic fantasies come bang up against the animalistic, abusive and sensual Stanley, with disastrous conclusions.

The scenes are short, slick and skilfully handled, capturing in movement and actions the development of Blanche’s past from virtue to vice, and using every opportunity to break free from the grey dinginess of the apartment to take the characters into technicoloured scenes. There are nightclubs with prancing showgirls, and even rowing on the lake with bright parasols. Salem’s eclectic score, played by a band of 13 specialist musicians, caught the atmosphere for these different features of the story and produced music easy on the ear and easy to dance to.

The scenario offers many good roles. Victor Zarallo as Alan, Blanche’s brief husband, danced with a soft exacting manner, which showed his troubled mind. Though killed off early in the ballet, he returns regularly in his blooded shirt, like Banquo’s ghost, in Blanche’s hallucinations, watching her wrongdoings and setting her nerves alight. Her geeky would-be suitor Mitch was comically danced by Adam Blyde, as he tried unsuccessfully to woo her at the movies and in a rowboat. Sophie Martin was the chirpy younger sister Stella, whose steps were light and free at the wedding, though later became a woman physically and mentally mesmerized by her husband’s violent passions, and always forgiving. There was strong sexual chemistry between her and Tama Barry as Stanley Kowalski who was suitably muscular and earthy, and looked good in his ‘Brando’ tight T-shirt. He danced with force and conviction, and even uttered the famous crie-de-coeur – “Ste-laaa!” – in true Brando fashion.

As for the once-in-a-lifetime dance role of Blanche, Eve Mutso took it full force, offering a great portrait of the troubled soul. She has a strong technique with high, swirling legs that snare her men, and she convinced with her acting. My niggle was that she was too big physically and more Amazonian than sexy for my conception of the fragile, mentally disturbed Blanche – and, indeed, she was taller than all her partners when she went on pointe. But the cheers for her at the curtain-call showed what a success she was.

****1