I want magic! Maxine Peake certainly gave us plenty in Streetcar Named Desire (at the Royal Exchange until Saturday 15 October 2016)

Sarah Frankcom took over as director at the Royal Exchange in 2014. Her collaboration with Maxine Peake as Hamlet is probably most well-known. Peake’s Masque of Anarchy performance for the anniversary of Waterloo, and in The Skriker last summer, are also both memorable for me, not least out of admiration for Maxine Peake’s powerfully moving performance in a chapel full of candles which had me fainting away with the heat and bustle of watchers. Whilst I perhaps am not one of those physically strong, hardy women comfortably able to deal with adverse physical conditions with no problems, I got the feeling Maxine was – she was tough, unafraid, a direct, straight-talking realist taken to the stage and the most unlikely person to faint away at a few too many candles and gentle shoves. So it was initially a surprise to hear she was playing famously feminine and fragile Blanche. An exciting surprise, obviously, and one I quickly booked to experience.

In Streetcar Maxine Peake proved with the greatest ease, not that it really needed proving, that yes she is a hell of an actress and yes she really can tackle anything. In Sarah Frankcom’s interview with the Guardian she describes Streetcar as “a very scary play” but that it’s “good to scare yourself”. It’s clear from the range of roles Maxine Peake has taken on that she too is unafraid of a challenge. Evidently scary is good as this is by far my favourite yet of the pair’s productions.

Maxine Peake makes a glamorous Blanche, complete with short blonde curls and dark sunglasses she arrives in town as Stella’s (Sharon Duncan Brewster’s) well-dressed sister from Mississippi. Nothing is quite as it seems though. Blanche is like a magpie, her interest in lover Mitch (Youssef Kerkour) sparked by the gleam of his silver cigarette case. Blanche’s suitcase gives the desired impression of money and taste – emptied full of glitter, fur, sequinned or floral dresses, a heart shaped velvet jewellery box dangling strings of imitation pearls and gold bangles. The fur stole is a long ago gift, the accessories inexpensive, costume jewellery. Not so to dim-witted suspicious Stanley of course (Stella’s husband, superbly played by Ben Batt), to whom a sparkly dress is “solid gold” in its shine. “This is the money from your plantation” he insists to Stella. “Money just goes… places” Blanche offers vaguely, but honestly. Evidently she is not much of a saver. The stage set for the Kowalski’s home is like a budget Sims house with the walls collapsed and fluorescent floor lights acting as wall divides. As a horrified Blanche repeats, there are only 2 rooms. It’s easy to believe the two are sisters from their fierce care and continual needling of each other.

Blanche dislikes harsh, bare light, dressing the light bulb in her room with a lantern, and choosing to meet Mitch in the flattering dusk of evening light. She shies away from full, unforgiving illuminations of her face and continually frets that she is “losing her looks”. Her age is eternally 21 on her birthday cake. “Soft people have to shine and glow” she says, and such shimmering is something that seems harder to Blanche with age. This and her demand for magic rather than reality suggests a show, an act, a forced glitter and floatiness that is really a façade for something unseen. Maxine Peake does give Blanche a hidden grittiness. We see a transparent attempt at secrecy in the alcohol addiction Blanche nurses. She claims “one is my limit” to Stella, having just neatly necked a shot of whisky upon arrival. The cover slips easily and the story changes – later in conversation with Mitch after a night out the limit is “two”. Perhaps what makes Maxine Peake’s Blanche special is her ability to effortlessly deliver to us a Blanche who is genuinely mixed and unstraightforward. She starts off the play as a sort of survivor who is hyper critical of her surroundings and sister’s life choices to protect herself and her own vulnerability. She is not just a woman off the rails and dominated by addiction, to be pitied and ignored, but presents a challenge of morality and fabrication to unravel – what is untruth and what is real – whatever it is Peake’s Blanche is a character you entirely believe in.

Blanche is not the only character in the play who is performing. Mitch seems sensitive and sweet at first, even if his proposal does whiff of desperation rather than romance: “You and I both need someone. Maybe we could be that person to each other.” These are lines which conjure a relationship of necessity based on an indiscriminate need for some sort of constant human company, rather than something more romantically specific. When he later dismisses Blanche as “not clean” enough to bring back to his mother that is the brutal end of that. And then of course there is Stanley. His brutal strength is also veiled, and even when open for all to see it can still be ignored. The loud noise of Blanche’s music sends Stanley into a furiously well-acted frenzy, glimpses of a brutal bestiary glaring through, in reaction to a strength and threat he sees in Blanche, cannot understand and so tries to quash with violence and even rape.

According to Frankcom Blanche is “one of the most iconic female characters,  and yet the great danger is she’s seen as just another bad, mad, sad woman – what do I see in it that might be different?” What seems to characterise the play for me is Blanche’s cry: “I want magic”. Magic is transformative, it makes possible things that are otherwise impossible and unachievable, it turns pumpkins into carriages and mice into horsemen and showers you with every possible something you could imagine. Blanche creates her own sort of magic with her own illumination of the world, an interpretation which is not always in line with other people’s moral standards. To see her taken away to an asylum at the end feels very real and heart-breaking. The magic is broken, the spell is over and the audience awakes from an American dream delusion into a hungover and confused reality.