Last night, as the cry of “Stellaaaa!” echoed through Le Grand Palais Hotel near Phnom Penh’s riverside, theatregoers found themselves privy to the intimate downward spiral of a delusional Southern belle.
Seven decades after the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the challenging tragedy has arrived for a brief residency with the Phnom Penh Players, who transport the audience to steamy 1940s downtown New Orleans with, as director Chas Hamilton says, “a little bit of magic”.
In Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play, hierarchy and class are defined by protagonist Blanche Dubois’ decorum and her antithesis – and sister’s husband – Stanley Kowalski. But, with every bang of the rattletrap streetcar and piano interlude, the characters are slowly stripped back to their raw human essence.
One a brute, one slowly slipping into lunacy, one bound by love, and all overwhelmingly defined by their sexuality and “brutal desire”.
The hot tension between Stella Kowalski (Sarah Korver) and Stanley (Ben Blandford) convincingly cuts through the boundaries of misogyny and class, allowing the audience a fresh insight into the depth of their relationship in this highly recommended staging.
Hamilton is a relative newcomer to the Phnom Penh Players, acting as stage manager earlier this year for the theatre group’s successful performance of The Rocky Horror Show. And despite the short pre-production period of two months, this performance entrances the audience with its characters and conflict.
“That’s the spark, and that’s visceral, and that’s what is going to connect with the audience,” Hamilton says. “[It will] get the hairs standing up on the backs of their necks.”
The emotional performance remains true to the original script, setting and time, with period music weaving a tapestry of a busy New Orleans on stage and, at times, taking the audience deeper into the scenes in Blanche’s mind.
The colonial grandeur of Le Grand Palais Hotel, turned temporarily into a theatre, envelops the audience in a different space in time and, with costume designer Grace Smith’s keen thrift-shop eye, the 1940s outfits paint the realism that Blanche so longs to escape.
Nevertheless, the performance confronts the audience with contentious social and personal motifs that remain all too relevant in 2016.
“We’ve been exploring the resonances with Cambodia,” Hamilton says. “Because here it is a sultry, hot tropical climate, just like New Orleans in the summer. And it’s poor. And one of the main themes in the play is domestic violence, and that is widespread in Cambodia.”
In a country where an estimated one quarter of men admit to violence against their partners, it’s a performance that provides perspective.
“Stanley’s wife Stella is trapped. It shows that pattern [of abuse] that can be so difficult for some women to get out of because of love, responsibility and because she’s pregnant. It’s a vicious cycle,” he says.
The proceeds of the Phnom Penh Players’ six performances of Streetcar will be donated to the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC), an NGO that works to prevent domestic violence as well as to provide protection for victims.
“This issue is very much embedded in social norms across all nationalities, geographical locations and class, not just in Cambodia,” says Pok Panhavichetr, CWCC’s executive director. “It is life, so it is very good to show this – the status of women – and how women all over the world are challenging it.”
Despite the play’s serious themes, the audience does have moments of reprieve when the double entendres come through, particularly in the discrepancy between Blanche’s physical actions and how she thinks things ought to be.
“If we’re going to be honest about [Blanche], she’s not afraid of having a drink or two, whether or not she hides it well and, just like in real life, that can be amusing,” says Emily Marques of the nervous character she plays.
Marques describes the lead-up to her performance of Blanche as like “being afraid of heights; not deathly afraid, but you still have that little panic inside”.
Yet, as Blanche dips in and out of insanity, each time plunging further into her illusory world, Marques masterfully maintains the balance between the Southern belle who expects to be invited to cruises and her reality as a desperate, destitute woman.
“Blanche, being a woman, is not able to escape the boundaries,” Marques says of her character’s demise. “It makes sense that she would fall. It makes sense that she would use what would be within her power, such as her body in and of itself. She did things for a sense of survival, and it only ate at her within the moment and didn’t do anything for her future.”
Tickets for A Streetcar Named Desire are on sale at Box Office, the Flicks 1 and Le Grand Palais for $10. Profits will go to CWCC’s provision of psychological, social and legal aid for victims of domestic violence. The production runs from September 22 to 24 and from September 26 to 28.