Scottish Ballet’s Streetcar conveys narrative and emotion through nothing but movement and music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire: Soloists, Orchestra of Scottish Ballet / Robert Baxter (conductor). Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 3.5.2023. (SRT)

Marge Hendrick as Blanche in Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire © Andy Ross

Direction – Nancy Meckler
Choreography – Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Set and Costume designs – Nicola Turner
Music and Sound – Peter Salem

Blanche – Marge Hendrick
Stella – Bethany Kingsley-Garner
Alan – Javier Andreu
Stanley – Ryoichi Hirano
Mitch – Jerome Barnes

Scottish Ballet’s A Streetcar Named Desire dates from only 2012, but it has already taken on the air of a classic. This is the third time I have seen it, and the more I get to know it the more I am impressed with how effectively they have taken Tennessee Williams’s claustrophobic play and transformed it into something that conveys both narrative and emotion through nothing but movement and music.

At the heart of its success is the concision of its storytelling. The scenario, by Nancy Meckler and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, wisely tells the story as a straight chronology, avoiding all the flashbacks and slow revelations that characterise Williams’s play. Instead everything unfolds as it happens, which loses some of the play’s sense of awning dread, but allows for admirable clarity in the narrative dance. So, we see Blanche’s doomed marriage and the collapse of Belle Reve, before moving to a sultry New Orleans and Stella’s claustrophobic apartment. Nicola Turner’s designs are stripped-back and mobile, but that accommodates the dance space very flexibly, and every scene is beautifully realised and completely clear. The audience always knows exactly where we are: even if you hadn’t read the synopsis you would be able to follow it precisely, and that is a rare compliment to pay to any narrative ballet.

The story also unfolds through Lopez Ochoa’s choreography which acts as both the driver of the action and a poetic commentary on it. Sometimes it drives the drama, such as in the melee of the bowling alley or the angular thrusting of the crowd that drives Blanche out of town. More often, however, it enriches the story by telling us something that lurks underneath. Blanche’s movement, for example, perfectly mirrors that of her Alan, her ill-fated husband, in the early scenes, but Alan’s mirroring then transfers to Jeff, his lover, showing where his affections really lie. Central to the concept is the image of the moth, one Williams uses for Blanche, and the repeated use of Blanche’s brittle, fragile movements underscore the idea of her being drawn to the flame that will ultimately destroy her. Tim Mitchell’s landscape of rippling lightbulbs makes that indelibly powerful.

The cast of dancers they have for this revival is terrific. Marge Hendrick’s Blanche is fragile and vulnerable, evoking sympathy for Blanche through the poetry of her movement while reminding us that, to an important extent, Blanche is an agent in her own destruction. Bethany Kingsley-Garner, as Blanche’s sister Stella, moves in a much more earthy, sensual way by contrast, while Ryoichi Hirano oozes threatening masculinity as Stanley. The climactic act of violence is carefully paced so as to heighten the levels of threat before anything actually happens, making it all the more shocking when the denouement arrives.

Peter Salem’s original score is a very effective musical collage, painting each scene through effective choice of aural scenario. We get a genteel tea dance for the early Belle Reve scenes, for example, which later becomes horribly distorted to reflect Blanche’s disintegration. It moves seamlessly into steamy jazz, dominated by saxophone and muted trumpet, when me move to New Orleans, and Salem expertly incorporates both extra-musical recorded sound and a track by Ella Fitzgerald that at one point becomes an almost unbearable source of tension. The Orchestra of Scottish Ballet play it as a collective of soloists, and Robert Baxter conducts it with enough sense of pace to keep the dance flowing.

So many revivals of a modern piece in only a decade is high praise for any piece of contemporary dance, an achievement many companies must envy. Once it leaves Edinburgh it is touring as far afield as Orkney and Lewis, as well it should: it is a terrific piece of work and deserves to be widely seen. Here’s to many more revivals.

Simon Thompson

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