A Streetcar Named Desire ’reframed’ into a stage production

Director of A Streetcar Named Desire, Fred Abrahamse

For the past decade, Abrahamse and Meyer Productions have annually presented a series of award-winning productions of Tennessee Williams’ plays in Cape Town and the United States, starting with Kingdom of Earth in 2012.

In celebration of their 10-year exploration of the American playwright and screenwriter’s work and in honour of his greatest play’s 75th anniversary, director Fred Abrahamse and actor Marcel Meyer have selected A Streetcar Named Desire as the centrepiece of the summer season.

The play is being staged at the Artscape Theatre until Saturday February 12 and will then go on tour in the United States.

A Streetcar Named Desire traces the descent into madness of Blanche Dubois, played by multi-award winning actor Fiona Ramsay, who has fallen on hard-times and ends up destitute, in New Orleans, living with her sister, Stella, and her brutish brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, played by Marcel Meyer, who also designed all the costumes for the set.

The 1951 film version, starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, picked up 12 Academy Award nominations.

Abrahamse, from Muizenberg, grew up in the arts. “My family was very into the arts. We used to go to everything – from the circus, ballet, theatre and movies.”

He said at the school he attended, the orchestra, ballet and musicians used to visit often, and pupils were able to learn about the arts. “Schools today are missing this. If I wasn’t exposed to the arts, I wouldn’t have this fire inside me.”

He said art was an important way for communities to express themselves.

Abrahamse went on to study arts at the University of Cape Town, and has won multiple awards including the Fleur du Cap for best director for District 6 – The Musical and Beautiful Thing; Fleur du Cap for best set for Assassins and Kingdom of Earth; and the 2019 Naledi Award for best costume design for Macbeth, among other awards.

Actor and costume designer Marcel Meyer

Meyer grew up in KwaZulu-Natal and studied arts in Pretoria, and shortly after his studies, moved to Cape Town because it seemed to have a more vibrant arts community than Gauteng at the time, he said.

The Muizenberg resident said he realised he wanted to perform when his parents took him to the circus when he was 3 years old – and he wanted to be a clown. “I’m still a clown, but just without the red nose,” he joked.

Meyer has also won many awards, with seven Fleur du Cap nominations for best costume design, and winning the 2011 award for Richard III; 2019 Naledi Award for best costume design for Macbeth, and best costume design for Williams’ Stairs to the Roof, among others.

Abrahamse said the company started exploring Williams’ writing 10 years ago and was drawn to his work, because he grew up when South Africa experienced apartheid, and Williams grew up in a time of racism and discrimination and was able to express it through plays.

He said while transforming an iconic movie such as A Streetcar Named Desire into a theatre production, the key was to reframe things – “much like you would take an old picture and put a new frame on it to make it look good again, and without destroying its essence”.

“We wanted to frame it in a way that people see it with fresh eyes, so that the newer generations can understand it, and that the older generations can appreciate it.”

Meyer said he and Abrahamse had watched the production a few times, and thought that 10 years seemed to be enough time to tackle “the most famous play written by Tennessee Williams”, but with a little twist.

“Performers always try to put the movie on set, but we wanted to dramatise how emotional it was for the crazy person – for Blanche – and bring the focus back to her.”

He said the original 1957 movie was the breakout point for Marlon Brando, who played Stanley, and this drew people’s eyes away from Blanche.

“In the production, we are seeing things through her lens, and this struck the right balance for the play.”

Abrahamse said the concept of the production was memory, and that was portrayed by using a white set, and changing it according to Blanche’s memories and emotions using light and shadows. “Using pops of colour and shadows highlighted certain spaces in Blanche’s memories because as all memories, they were vague.”

Meyer said Williams was quite specific in the costuming of the actors in the production. “We knew what he wanted to portray with the colours and the white palates, but it was also a matter of seeing the characters in retrospect – it shows two concepts at the same time.”

He said the idea was to create an abstract set that could be anything.

He said costumes are often refined in the process depending on a number of factors, including quick changes, the way the actor wears the costume and moves in it. “You don’t know until you know.”

On opening night on Tuesday February 2, Fred was able to see the production come to life. “It is always incredible to see it with the audience – and nothing beats a live audience. You are involved in theatre. It’s not like a movie where you can pause.”

Meyer, who was on stage and will be in the role of Stanley for the run, said the audience’s energy makes the production different every day.

“We also just wanted to share one of the most beautiful plays in history.

“Every generation can look at it through new eyes, and especially now, as the pandemic eases, it’s thrilling to be able to perform and experience an audience.”

Abrahamse said one of the best rewards is seeing a play evoke emotion and start conversations among people, especially the younger generations. “A vital part of what we do is bring theatre to young people. A Streetcar Named Desire was performed to many schools, and we are also doing a remake of Hamlet because that is what children are studying.

“Its important to keep the classical work alive for young people.”

A Streetcar Named Desire will play in repertory with Tennessee Williams’ One Arm next week until Saturday February 12, and One Arm will run until Saturday February 19.

Tickets range from R200 to R280 and can be booked at Computicket, or Artscape Dial-a-Seat at 021 421 7695.