As our small gang of 6th form English Literature students entered the renowned Royal Exchange Theatre (located in the heart of St Ann’s square), a sense of wonder caught on fast as we entered the grand building and admired its high ceiling and Classical architecture.
Entering the metal ‘pod’ in the centre of the great hall, we were ushered to one of 700 seats in Britain’s largest theatre-in-the-round. With seats lining its seven sides, some wondered how the actors might tackle the problem of unavoidably breaking first rule of stage performance: ‘never turn your back to the audience’.
But despite occasionally seeing the backs of actors’ heads, or having to peer over the railing in front (seated, as we were, in the gods of this miniature theatre) our view of the character’s emotions and thoughts was never impeded by the layout of the theatre. Instead, Maxine Peake utilised the intimacy of the setting to bring Blanche Dubois’s fantasies and disturbances fully to life before us, and Ben Batt’s portrayal of the violent, animal-like Stanley Kowalski was only the more intense from its very closeness.
Peake is, in fact, well-accustomed to the Exchange’s unique stage, having exhibited her celebrated talents there previously, in productions of ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Skriker’. The flexibility displayed by her praised portrayal of Shakespeare’s male protagonist was practised to an equal extent in her role as the self-deceiving and deeply troubled Blanche.
Emerging from the heptagonal auditorium 3 hours later, the group was subdued and contemplative, having been taken on an emotional journey whose effect was difficult to articulate. We had witnessed scenes of brutality and desire made even more poignant by the subtle stylisation of the harshest aspects of the piece. The play’s themes of passion, melancholy and instability had left us with a lot to consider; and all agreed that Tennessee William’s turbulent composition would certainly provide us with plenty of material for A-level study.