Interview - Patrick Knowles (A Streetcar Named Desire)

Tennessee Williams is now considered one of America’s greatest playwrights, and even back in 1947 when he wrote A Streetcar Named Desire he had already achieved great success with his spectacular memory play The Glass Menagerie. However, arguably it was the brash and confrontational Streetcar which propelled Williams’ name into the theatrical history books.

Fresh out of a rehearsal for the English Touring Theatre production of Tennessee Williams' sweltering drama, I'm speaking to Patrick Knowles, who is playing Stanley Kowalski, the embodiment of stereotypical masculinity.

Boasting a career which stretches over stage and screen, the LAMDA trained actor was recently a Company member in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Imperium, a production which he will be returning to when it transfers to London’s Gielgud Theatre in June. He also appeared in Call The Midwife with Kelly Gough, who stars opposite him now as Blanche DuBois. Interestingly too, this isn’t Knowles' first foray into the world of A Streetcar Named Desire, as back in 2015 he appeared as Mitch, Blanche’s downtrodden beau, in a production at the Leicester Curve, directed by Nikolai Foster. It must be interesting, I remark, to return to the play in a different role, especially one as iconic as Stanley - a role made famous on Broadway and in the 1951 film adaptation, by Marlon Brando. Knowles agrees. ‘It's actually quite a privilege to be able to do such a great play twice’ he enthuses. ‘I think it's a phenomenal piece of work. It's a bit of a masterpiece. It’s so well written and the characters are so well rendered, and still really relevant’.

We discuss the relevance of Tennessee Williams’ writing in further detail as I bring up the autobiographical nature of several of his plays, including A Streetcar Named Desire, wherein the characters of Stanley was likely modelled after Williams' father. Many people may be familiar with the ways in which The Glass Menagerie mirrors Williams’ own family. After all, the fragile Laura Wingfield was a fictional version of his sister Rose, and his mother was the inspiration for boisterous matriarch Amanda Wingfield. Williams gave audiences a personal view into his own life by basing Tom Wingfield, the factory worker and aspiring poet who yearned to escape the confines of his suffocating family home, on himself. ‘I remember reading an article about The Glass Menagerie where his mother came to the opening night and Williams was terrified that she'd watch it and know that the mother in that was based on her. She doesn't really get the most favorable representation...' Knowles explains, before revealing that although apparently she loved the play, she hated Amanda! 'It's quite funny. She didn't recognize herself, but could see how overbearing the mother character was.'

Knowles marvels at Williams’ ability to transfer his own life experiences into such universal fictional terms. ‘It's a great example of write-what-you-know; taking elements of your life that you found poetic or heartbreaking or joy-filled and sort of rendering that in a way that is accessible to everyone.'

Joe Manj├│n (Pablo), Patrick Knowles (Stanley) Will Bliss (Steve) and Dexter Flanders (Mitch) in rehearsal for A Streetcar Named Desire
Photo by The Other Richard
One of the things which makes A Streetcar Named Desire such a universal play is the way it addresses a number of themes such as gender and gender stereotypes, mental health, appearances, and drug and alcohol abuse, to name but a few. To young people studying the play in school, these themes may very well resonate, despite having been written by Tennessee Williams over 70 years ago. For Patrick Knowles, the idea that students will see the play and feel empowered to talk about their own personal issues, through the medium of the text, is one thing that he finds especially stimulating. ‘I think timing of what we're saying about a lot of issues may be relevant to young people coming to see it as part of a school syllabus. I think it is relevant and that people will see it and not feel alone. let's face it, that's the worst thing, I think for me, that's my opinion, feeling alone and not being able to talk about something.’

For many young people the play is a mainstay of their GCSE English Literature studies. As many have argued over the years, reading a play is often not the best way to communicate its potency to a captive audience. With that in mind, perhaps, Chelsea Walker’s production of the 1940s classic has been brought into the modern day, complete with a fresh contemporary soundtrack and modern dress. With so much new writing covering similar themes to those which Streetcar is known for, I’m curious about why now is the right time to tour this particular play. 'I think the timing is bang on really,' Knowles asserts, 'the effect of the "Me too" movement is on a global scale. I think that ideas about sexual politics and power dynamics, and what it is to be complicit… that's still very fresh, very important and very relevant. Even more so now because it is up for debate in the public sphere. It is a conversation that needs to be had and continue to happen.’ 

Furthering the idea of A Streetcar Named Desire being an accurate mirror to life in 2018, Knowles is keen to highlight the accessibility of the English Touring Theatre production. 'Some of my friends are like "I've never read it and I feel like I should, but I've never got around to it, or never had a chance". This would really be a great production to come and see because it's unabridged, but it's going to be very accessible to all levels.' It also should be noted that as the tour will stop off at multiple points up and down the country, it may make the play more accessible to those unable to travel into London to see theatre. 'You've got a big window of opportunity' Knowles agrees, adding 'if you like the play anyway, you'll like this version, and if you've always wanted to see it, you've got ample time to come check it out. You don't have to sit there and read the book, we can just tell you the story,' he jokes.
Amber James (Stella) Patrick Knowles (Stanley) and Dexter Flanders (Mitch) in rehearsals for A Streetcar Named Desire
Photo by The Other Richard
‘If you think of a more traditional Streetcar, it could be potentially be quite stuffy and placed. "Oh my God, my days are wilting”' he adds, feigning a heightened Southern twang. ‘This is a very modern, very fresh version... it's quick, it's punchy, which is actually probably exactly how it was when it was first done.’ He elaborates, but is also keen to assure fans of the original play that its essence remains the same. ‘All plays are new writing at some stage, and when Streetcar was a piece of new writing it just happened to be 1947. The power, the potency, the virility of it hasn't changed, it's just sometimes when you look back on stuff retrospectively it’s easy to miss the contemporary relevance of the piece because obviously it's however many years old.’ In short, this production of A Streetcar Named Desire is the perfect production for both new audiences and long terms fans of Tennessee Williams’ iconic work. ‘We’re keeping the heart of it, just freshening it to make it relevant.’

‘When they did the play on Broadway they were still doing revisions and rewrites the day before the play opened. They could because Tennessee Williams was in the room; he was in his late twenties, it was young, fresh, exciting.’ Knowles tells me. And in his opinion, it still is. It’d certainly be a shame if such an intense and urgent play became a museum piece, but in director Chelsea Walker’s production, the play’s modern relevance takes centre stage.

The conversation turns to the actual rehearsal process, and Knowles acknowledges that a part with such a renowned history and iconic status is slightly daunting in a way. 'Any good part in any brilliant play will have been done many times before by many great people.' He admits, 'but I think the key thing is trust in the text, trust what the writer has written, and trust your other actors and what they give to you, because at the end of the day it has to be organic and believable in the version you are doing.'