Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Frequent visitors to the Fringe, Georgia’s iconic, multi award-winning, Tumanishvili Film Actors Company of Tbilisi, take on Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire. This is an excellently acted performance: a Streetcar for our times.
Streetcar Named Desire is one of Tennessee Williams’ greatest plays, and indeed, one of the 20th century’s greatest. Examining themes of illusion and reality, and gender, Streetcar doesn’t yield easy answers; the director, Keti Dolidze does not shy away from that moral complexity. She puts before us fragile and flawed, deeply human, characters with all their imperfections, and she has a cast whose all round excellence can handle this.
Nineli Chankvetadze gives us a Blanche du Bois whose strategy for dealing with the knocks and disappointments that life has dealt her is to live in a world of dreams; Chankvetadze manages to portray the complex mix of fragility, delusion and posturing that drives Blanche’s character. Where life collides with reality, her tactics are simply to put a veil over it. When she arrives virtually destitute at her sister, Stella’s house, having got the streetcar named Desire to Elysian Fields, she enters a world very far from Belle Reve. Here, the fading Southern dream meets emerging urban immigrant reality. Imeda Arabuli gives a virtuoso performance mediating the brute force and intense physicality of Stanley Kowalski with an undertone of deeply buried and almost desperate sensitivity.
A translucent screen behind the performers puts on stage the world behind the claustrophobic apartment. A tall American bank of commerce towers above, and the whistle of the streetcar is an intermittent reminder of the world beyond. Silhouettes of jazz musicians leaning into saxophones provide a background score. As the characters on stage battle out opposing values of gender, class and how to engage with the world, the shifting backdrop reminds us of the urgency and attraction of the emerging new world they’re struggling to be part of. Keti Dolidze gives us a Streetcar that has at its centre dreams and how they shape our lives, either evading life through dreams or living the dream.
This production of Streetcar distills the play down to an hour and twenty minutes. Given its melodramatic form this can be achieved but not without a loss of some of its complexity; the Film Actors Studio manage this beautifully. However, there is a fundamental problem with this otherwise excellent production: the play is performed in Georgian and relies on English surtitles. Unfortunately the surtitles were often out of sync or stalled the day I saw it. Both for understanding and for the play’s emphasis on language, this detracts hugely from the production. Nonetheless it remains worth seeing for the excellence of the acting and the strength of its direction.
Tennessee Williams has often seemed like a voice from another era. Two productions this festival, The Glass Menagerie (International Festival) and this Streetcar, have brought him right into the 21st century; what seems increasingly relevant to today and what these productions focus on is society on the cusp of great change with one set of characters looking back nostalgically to a vanishing world while others thrust against them into the unknown, emerging new world. Tumanishvili Film Actors Company of Tbilisi has produced a Streetcar for our times.