I’m not convinced about the ‘secret’ component of ‘Secret Theatre’ at the Lyric Hammersmith. Sure, it generates a lot of Twitter banter – but does it add much to the theatrical experience? It’s pretty telling that the bods at the Lyric have told the press it is now OK to reveal the secret. Was the secret, then, only necessary for a select few? I am going to reveal the secret behind Show 2, since it is impossible to review otherwise. If you don’t want the (somewhat pointless) secret revealed, then stop reading.
Right, so it’s Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The fact we don’t know this in advance has a limited impact. On a practical level, it means the critics don’t need to do any research. It also allows one to play ‘spot the show’ in the opening scene. I’ve never played this before and it’s fun. Ish. Otherwise, the ‘secret’ angle just feels like smoke and mirrors, which makes me wary. Sean Holmes has talked stirringly about wanting to create raw, honest, ugly, fiery, surprising theatre. That kind of theatre should be able to speak for itself – and certainly doesn’t require any laboured set up or press gimmick, distinct from the show itself.
Anyway, it’s not a huge deal. Let’s leave the secret stuff aside and concentrate on the production, which is played in a half-capacity theatre, draped in plastic (renovations are taking place). Despite all this, the Lyric signature style is firmly intact in Sean Holmes’ stark and curious production.
The aesthetic feels familiar; all strip lights, big white screens and colourful, defiantly incongruous props (Watermelon is used a lot and I have no idea why). Everything – the props, the acting style, the music – feels odd and jolting yet weirdly measured. There is a faintly mechanised yet unbalanced air to proceedings; as if the production is being controlled by a shoddily wired robot, on the verge of self-destruction.
The cast comes across as amazingly unburdened. It’s as if they have no idea of the weight of expectation that comes with this play. That Holmes and dramaturg Simon Stephens have managed to coax this type of freedom from their cast is something rare, important and impressive. The actors create new roles, completely their own. These left-field interpretations don’t always work but they do feel original, as if the cast has somehow been able to read the script without any knowledge of prior performances. The text also feels new and wildly altered. This is odd and interesting since, on further study, it turns out to be not hugely dissimilar from Williams’ original.
Nadia Albina’s Blanche sounds like she has never spoken a natural word in her life. She speaks at a consistently high pitch, as if she is afraid her real voice might give too much away. Albina was born without her right forearm and her physical appearance does, naturally, feed into her performance. There is a quietly thundering moment late on, when she utters this line: ‘Soft people have got to glimmer and glow.’ The personal history which hums behind that phrase is shattering.
Albina’s Blanche is also a little less theatrical than previous incarnations. She speaks in an English accent – as do most of the actors – which strips away some of the theatrical flamboyance from Williams’ script. There is a pared down quality to this whole production – not just the delivery, but also the emotions and visuals - which is really interesting but also deeply problematic.
The cooler atmosphere lends a curious feel to Stan’s violent outbursts. Sergo Vares is simply not the Stan that Williams envisioned; ‘Animal joy in his being is implicit in all his movements and attitudes’. Vares is a physical performer and moves with a jaunty grace rather than threatening strides. When Stan’s outbursts come, they do not feel like a natural extension of his character – nor an inevitable consequence of an already volatile atmosphere. In more traditional productions of ‘Streetcar’, these violent explosions can feel like a theatrical flourish; glamorous and almost worthy of our applause. Here, the violence feels discordant and wrong.
This means we get some thrilling, isolated moments of shock. But this lack of innate violence and passion also neutralises Williams’ play. This production needs more fire in its belly. There isn’t that angry, burning build that glows and glows and eventually explodes, leaving us devastated. There also isn’t a lot of sexual spark to this production. When Stan and Stella (Adelle Leonce) wrap their limbs around each other, it feels more comforting than ferocious. Tennessee Williams without sexual tension just isn’t Williams. The final showdown between Blanche and Stan doesn’t really crackle and their sexless rage feels cold.
Ultimately, the cool style of Holmes’ show and the unquenchable passions of ‘Streetcar’ don’t really merge. We’re all gagging for the type of raw, urgent, unfettered and challenging theatre Holmes is calling for – but not at the cost of a classic play. This production isn’t quite it – but it is the first step of a crucial journey.