A Streetcar Named Desire in Belfast

The Scottish Ballet bring a 'thrilling new take on a great old play' to the Grand Opera House

A muscular man in a tight-fitting vest leans menacingly against a squalid, peeling wall. His eyes are fixed on a slender, blonde haired woman, sensual yet vulnerable in a lace-trimmed satin slip. This gritty, monochrome image is designed to attract audiences not to a hard-edged kitchen sink drama but to a new, full-length ballet by one of the UK’s most enterprising companies.

Scottish Ballet’s artistic director Ashley Page had long nursed a vision of developing a new project for the company, with a creative team led by a theatre director. He first encountered the work Nancy Meckler in 2001, when her company Shared Experience – popular past visitors to the Belfast Festival - was presenting an adaptation of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss at the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC.

'Nancy’s particular approach to storytelling and presentation I found gripping and intensely moving,' he recalls. 'I had been looking, at that time, for other ways in which dance could tell stories and it seemed to me that Shared Experience had developed an intriguing approach to it, but coming from another direction – towards movement rather than away from it. It occurred to me suddenly that sometimes it takes another art form to show you the way forward with your own.'

Nine years later, Page had a chance meeting with Meckler in London and the two started exploring the possibility of creating a new piece, based on a play or a novel, which would take this distinguished director outside her comfort zone. Next into the frame stepped Colombian/Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, closely followed by composer Peter Salem and designers Niki Turner and Tim Mitchell. The most crucial piece of the jigsaw was the final choice of Tennessee Williams’s masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire, which this year celebrates its 65th anniversary.

It has proved to be a landmark collaboration. On April 11, the company premiered Streetcar, to rave critical reviews and ecstatic audience reaction, at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow. Now it is out on the road, travelling to Edinburgh, London and Aberdeen and scheduled to arrive at the Belfast Grand Opera House on May 16.

In the busy streets outside the Festival Theatre the good folk of the Scottish capital go diligently about their everyday business. The atmosphere changes dramatically when one steps inside the empty auditorium, whose stunning art nouveau décor and peach-coloured velvet seats are quietly awaiting the arrival of the evening audience in a few hours time. On its vast stage is an unlit set of towering wooden crates and grimy industrial frames, in front of which little knots of of dancers in tracksuits, legwarmers and t-shirts are beginning their daily rehearsal session under the eye of ballet mistress Hope Muir.

The rapport between them is both focused and clubby. Many of the dancers have been with the company for a number of years and know each other extremely well. Some of the younger ones keep their heads down, concentrating hard on the task in hand. But, behind the joking and fooling around and showy acrobatics lies real, serious intent. What they have just embarked upon is an intense, emotionally challenging and physically draining new piece, which makes enormous demands on all concerned, most notably the principals and soloists taking on the roles of the main characters.

In the old days, ballet dancers existed in a cocooned regime of class, rehearsal and performance. Nowadays, they are expected to be accessible and user-friendly, meeting the public, taking part in school workshops, posing for fashion shoots and chatting with the media. The leading roles of the damaged, neurotic southern belle Blanche DuBois and her macho Polish brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski have been created on two of Scottish Ballet’s most intriguing dancers, both of them strong, highly articulate, handsome performers.

Principal Tama Barry was born in New Zealand and joined the company six years ago; soloist Eve Mutso is from Estonia and has been a member since 2003. It is riveting to hear them speak about the way in which they have developed their roles. They describe how early rehearsals turned into virtual casting sessions, as the director looked for pairs of dancers whose shared chemistry could drive Williams’s violently passionate story. As the conversation flows between them, it becomes evident that Meckler’s casting instincts were spot on.

'We show Blanche’s back story, which Williams did not write into the play,' explains Barry.  'You can’t dance in the past tense but the audience needs to know why she came to be living with her sister Stella and her husband in a cramped apartment. I read the play and watched the film, then I put them out of my mind, as I did not agree with everything Brandon did with Stanley. He’s not just an alpha male brute. He loves his wife and is popular with his mates. You have to understand the boiling frustration of a Polish immigrant trying to make his way in a city like New Orleans. The story is about the battle for Stella, with the shift of power constantly shifting between these two strong characters.

'Blanche has an unhappy history,' continues Mutso. 'She has lost her husband, her beautiful home and her family, she’s been with many men and is drinking heavily. She can come across as a monster, but I like her. You feel her pain, her guilt. She sets herself impossibly high standards as she tries to hide her past and her alcoholism. She and Stanley are iconic characters. Any performer would die to play them. But you must be careful not to act too much. You have to bring genuine feeling to the role to keep it fresh and natural.'

The leading members of the second cast are principals Claire Robertson and Erik Cavallari. Together with one of the company’s youngest members Andrew Peasgood, they are enthusiastic about how working with Meckler pushed them towards new dance experiences.

'We have acting skills already, of course,' says Cavallari, a softly-spoken, fine-featured Italian, frequently cast in more classical roles. 'But working on this piece means that they have been brought more to the fore. You must always keep your mind open to new experiences if you are to develop as a performer.'

Robertson came into the company 18 years ago at the invitation of its then artistic director, the legendary Galina Samsova. She juggles her career with marriage and raising a 15 month-old toddler. She clearly relishes the creative adventures into which Meckler led them. 'Working with Nancy was a revelation. She found ways of helping us identify the "need" of our character and then feed that into our interpretation. It was also really good fun combining ballet sequences with jazz and jive, as the story demands.'

'We are dealing here with hard issues,' says 23 year-old Peasgood, who came through the Royal Ballet School system before spending two years at the Ballet du Rhin in Strasbourg. He plays Blanche’s young husband Alan, who kills himself after a brief homosexual encounter on their wedding day. 'Alan is sexually confused. I had to ask difficult questions of myself and try to think of how I might feel in his situation.'

A couple of hours later, the curtain rises on Robertson’s Blanche, frail, brittle and childlike, fluttering like a white moth beneath a naked light bulb. The production plays heavily on the theme of Williams’s original title The Moth, with Robertson delicately capturing her character’s difficult combination of worldliness and arrested emotional development. She is partnered by Cavallari, who introduces an unexpectedly sweet sensitivity into his unconventional interpretation of the brutish Stanley, before relentlessly unleashing his masculinity upon a helpless Blanche. The trio is completed by Sophie Laplane’s light-as-air Stella, a bewitching symbol of purity caught in an ugly tug-of-war between two powerful warring forces.

As one of the few UK companies who regularly performed here during the years of conflict, Scottish Ballet holds a special place in the hearts of Northern Ireland people. The dancers say the feeling is mutual and that they love appearing here, not least because of the warmth and enthusiasm they feel radiating from the audience. When this thrilling new take on a great old play arrives at the Grand Opera House in May, ballet and theatre fans are in for a rare treat.

A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Grand Opera House May 16 - 19, go to CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide for more details.