Two weeks into 2023 and we’re already at one of the hottest, most exciting shows of the year. The excitement in this production of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 drama of desire, illusion, and mental illness was in the cast of both movie star Paul Mescal and director Rebecca Frecknall, who won major awards for last year’s Cabaret revival.
At first glance, Frecknall’s directorial vision seems to be driven by an excessive theatricality that could overshadow Mescal’s (and others) performance and drain the play’s emotional power, but Arzu Tramva deserves to be exaggerated.
With the slow motion action and a sudden downpour around the scene, the actors pick up and retake props to emphasize that each plays the role of both actor and character. It resembles a surprisingly overhauled Oklahoma in its soul! staged last year, but the stylistic innovations of this production felt sharper.
While it may seem like we’re watching more than diving into the game’s world at times, especially in the first half, its impact doesn’t always stop arresting.
But it is slowly gaining traction. Offstage actors sit on the sidelines and stare or circle the nearly empty set designed by Madeleine Girling as the action unfolds. Their sneaky presence creates a physical kind of claustrophobia and alarm in the tiny New Orleans apartment where Blanche DuBois (Patsy Ferran) is crammed next to her sister Stella (Anjana Vasan) and Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski (Mescal). Stanley undresses to reveal the brute threat of his muscular form; Blanche does the same to expose vulnerabilities.
It is most powerful in its use of sound (designed by Peter Rice) and music (composed by Angus MacRae). Mescal’s sudden shouts drop like fists, and some words turn into animal barks. Lines from the songs repeat and echo as if Blanche is trapped in a hallucinatory cycle. Above all, the drums beat and resonate as the cymbals beat, creating their own aural intensity (both singer Gabriela García and drummer Tom Penn are excellent). The 2014 production of Benedict Andrews, starring Gillian Anderson, brings a destabilizing giddiness to the drama with a constant stage spin, while it’s the sound that creates the disturbing turmoil here. The second half retains all the theatrical tics, but they become fully empowered, bringing fear and danger.
Mescal looks as natural on stage as it does on screen. He harbors a vacant contempt for Blanche and her overbearing judgments about her, but we see her jealous distrust in her anger, and the real fight between Stanley and Blanche is over Stella’s heart.
Related: Trolley desire: the enduring lure of Tennessee Williams’ tempting classic
In attacking Blanche, he becomes the “animal” Blanche accuses him of being – predatory, menacing, sprawling on all fours. Although this scene is choreographed as a kind of group dance, it contains a sharp sense of violation.
Mescal’s performance is matched by the two accompanying lead actors. Stepping in to play Blanche when Lydia Wilson left the team last month due to injury, Ferran is a butterfly in translucent clothes, a perverted but steely butterfly in her power struggles with Stanley. Meanwhile, Vasan’s Stella has a soft, sensual chemistry with Mescal and a tougher relationship with her sister.
For all its clever artificiality and unnaturalness, it is the power of these performances that gives this production its violent and dangerous energy.
• In Almeida, London until 4 February.