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Rachel Weisz in 'Streetcar' in London: What did the critics think?

July 30, 2009 |  1:13 pm

Streetcar The role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" is regarded as a pinnacle for stage actresses, and Rachel Weisz is currently scaling the role's formidable heights in London to resounding acclaim.

The Oscar-winning actress plays Blanche in the Donmar's staging, which also features Elliot Cowan as Stanley Kowalski, Ruth Wilson as Stella and Barnaby Kay as Mitch.

Choreographer Rob Ashford, who won a Tony for the 2002 Broadway revival of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," directs the production. (Ashford will be coming to L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum in September to direct the Donmar's revival of "Parade.")

Weisz's previous London stage credits include Williams' "Suddenly Last Summer" and Neil LaBute's "The Shape of Things." This marks her return to the theater after several years in the movies (her supporting actress Oscar was for "The Constant Gardener" in 2005), and it's fair to say that the pressure was on for the actress' turn as the  psychologically fragile Blanche -- a role immortalized by Vivien Leigh and Jessica Tandy.

How did Weisz's performance register with the critics? Keep reading to find out...

Like many of the critics, Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph was pleasantly surprised with the actress' performance: "I thought Rachel Weisz would almost certainly fail to rise to the challenge... In fact she rises to the challenge magnificently. It's worth pointing out that Williams's own stage directions described the character as being about 30. Her undoubted beauty is combined here with a fluttering, birdlike nervousness, and sudden moments of desperate panic, that wrench the heart."

Benedict Nightingale of The Times also offered praise for Weisz: "Does she underplay Blanche’s preciosity and squeamish affectations? Maybe; but she has the intelligence, the wry humour, the yearning for love and the capacity to express it, the warmth and the radiance thwarted by circumstances: indeed, the key qualities that make her Williams’s most striking creation."

In the International Herald Tribune, Matt Wolf wrote that "I’ve never seen a Blanche so fully in command of the contradictions that drive the heroine of Tennessee Williams’s play.... She is unique among the Blanches I have encountered in communicating afresh the full weight of the delusional Mississippian’s need to put on a performance: to stage a life for herself defined by beauty, poetry and grace even if the reality of her experience is one of heartache and abiding loss."

Variety's David Benedict called the staging "London's finest Tennessee Williams production in 15 years." He singled out director Rob Ashford's handling of all four lead actors, writing that his "background as a choreographer pays dividends when it comes to conveying the play's all-important sense of heat. Instead of cliched dabbing of handkerchiefs, these characters -- so used to but tired of the heat -- convey stickiness and sweat through the speed and weight with which they move."

Less impressed was Michael Coveney of the Independent: "Weisz starts vague and wispy, with that glinting, cunning deceptiveness of the dedicated drinker, but she misses an awful lot of the role's cutting cruelty and sheer drag queen bitchiness. The line with the telephone – "I can't dial, honey" – is lost upstage."

The Guardian's Michael Billington questioned Ashford's staging, which he wrote "is often stronger on externals than the drama's inner core... [The] production over-externalises Blanche's dreams and memories: we see not once but many times the husband whom she discovered with an another man and who subsequently shot himself. This strikes me as gratuitous since it spells out Blanche's inner tensions." He concluded: "I emerged impressed without quite being overwhelmed."

-- David Ng

Photo: Rachel Weisz and Elliot Cowan in the Donmar's production of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire." Credit: Johan Persson