22 May 2020 20:31
Gillian Anderson in the Young Vic production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' (Photo: Johan Persson) Tennessee Williams' steamy and volatile A Streetcar Named Desire first opened on Broadway in 1947, starring Jessica Tandy, Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter. For more than 70 years this Pulitzer Prize-winning American classic has been revived and reinterpreted on stages around the world. Blanche DuBois (Gillian Anderson, Sex Education, The X-Files) arrived at the run-down apartment of her sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby) and brother-in-law Stanley (Ben Foster). A scorching portrayal of domestic violence and familial tension, this production, directed by Benedict Andrews, remains the fastest-selling in Young Vic history and was broadcast by NT Live in 2014. Watch Now: Gillian Anderson in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' was last modified: by Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois and Ben Foster as Stanley.
"Deliberate cruelty is unforgivable," croons Blanche DuBois, but boy has Tennessee Williams got buckets of the stuff to come. The National's 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire swirls onto the stage in all its southern sweetness and heart-breaking brutality. Arguably William's most famous work, the claustrophobic story follows the distraught Blanche (played by Gillian Anderson) as she takes refuge from the lost family estate in her sister Stella's (Vanessa Kirby) tiny apartment. Battling drink, mental illness and penury, the clashes with the hard form of Stella's husband Stanley (Ben Foster) comprise much of the action. Constantly talking, simpering, flirting, rising and falling in energy and emotion, Blanche is one of the literary world's most sumptuous yet demanding characters.
Benedict Andrews's incarnation quivers with emotion – passionate, violent, sexual, but sensitive, human, and witty. Not a wilting faded flower like Leigh's Blanche, Anderson's Southern belle is brash, sensual, provocative – seeming to barely contain her smouldering libido – yet has a self-deprecating sense of humour. His vehemence toward Blanche is not baseless, as she constantly berates him as sub-human, particularly after his beating of her pregnant sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby) in a drunken rage. Kirby's Stella is sensitively and superbly acted, Foster is impressive as a multi-dimensional but ruthless Stanley, and Corey Johnson is outstanding as Blanche's potential beau, Mitch. Alex Baranowski's stunning, sultry jazz punctuates the piece during transitions – as well as songs like Chris Isaak's I Want to Fall in Love – and combined with various moody, evocative shades of light and a creatively well-staged set, the effect is steamy and stylish.
As the lies that she has told about her past life are gradually exposed, Blanche suffers a violent confrontation with Stanley. Anderson's performance as Blanche is a career high. By the time the "Wicked Game" lyric "The world was on fire and no one could save me but you" plays, it's clear that things are falling apart. Ben Foster's Stanley is a sweaty, tattooed danger man. Immediately you know that he's a man's man, most at home when he's playing cards with his mates. In between these two is Stella (Vanessa Kirby, pictured below, with Branwell Donaghey, Foster and Troy Glasgow) whose loyalties are torn between her sister and her husband. On the one hand, it boldly shakes off any sense of period detail, dispensing with the eldritch Southern American setting which usually characterises the play, preferring to set it on a clinically abstract set, which revolves constantly, shifting our perspective. On the other hand, Andrews has not been bold enough to trim the text and take out references to the past that sit uncomfortably in this updated and modern-dress setting. In fact, this timid approach to the text is what makes such revivals awkward: it's great to update the world of the play, but why not go the full way and edit the text? Like so many examples of filmed theatre, Nick Wickham's film is not always as mesmerising as the play might have been on stage. Graced with music by Chris Isaak and Cat Power among others, the abstract space of the setting emphasises the story's mythical side, with its sense that humanity is always fragile, always concealing its wounds under a glaze of drink and deceit, always ready for violence. Nevertheless, the high-octane, passionate acting – especially that of the central trio of Anderson, Foster and Kirby – does succeed not only in holding your attention, but also conveying the ideas and feelings of Williams's great drama. The cruel streak running through the story, in which Kirby's Stella looks as if she might be turned on by her husband's violence, comes across decisively. Thanks to costume designer Victoria Behr, the images that remain with you after the final credits roll are of Anderson's Blanche celebrating her birthday in a gaudy red dress, which shouts scarlet woman even when she's most child-like, and of her final confrontation with Stanley, dressed this time in a pink mardi gras outfit, face smeared with lipstick, and the dress's layers of taffeta no protection against his predation. Some of our favourite strangers are the National Theatre at Home team who this week bring us Benedict Andrews' outstanding production of A Streetcar Named Desire for the Young Vic in 2014, starring Gillian Anderson. A version that sweeps away fusty notions of Tennessee Williams as a period piece and releases the muscular sexuality that drives his most famous play. When the refined and nervy Blanche Dubois arrives at the New Orleans home of her sister Stella and husband Stanley, a class divide soon opens-up within the house. Benedict Andrews' production was exhilarating to witness live at the Young Vic and six-years later, on film, it has lost little of its absorbing power. Set on a rectangular revolving stage, designed by Magda Willi as a nod to the titular Streetcar, there is a sense of Tennessee Williams demystified, the detailed period setting simplified to focus on the emotional fragility and personal delusions within the characters, with excess reserved only for Blanche's increasingly froufrou costumes (by Victoria Behr) as her girlhood overwhelms her. On screen, this feels like Stanley's world, cold, brutal and full of his animalistic need to fight, to lust and to dominate, only tempered by the gauzy curtains, candle light and paper lanterns so vital to Blanche's self-image, all of which look beautiful on camera. Jon Clark lights the stage with the colours of domestic violence, yellows, greens, blues and purples, as the arrival of Blanche first intrudes then damages the relationship between the Kowalskis forever, causing rift and brutality to undermine their once passionate marriage. The visual stylings beat with the simmering tension of Andrews' vision for this play, as the dizzying revolve slowly winds the action until it reaches its final destiny in a dramatically shot final section. It is almost impossible to imagine the effect of playing this role night after night must have had on Gillian Anderson given its extraordinary pitch as Blanche teeters precariously on the edge of sanity before tumbling spectacularly over the edge. The effort Anderson expends in just about holding her Blanche together at the seams is incredible to witness, that veil of gentility and polish shattered as the truth of who she really claws its way out of her. Ben Foster's physically imposing Stanley is her opposite, straight-talking, cruel and proud of his instinctual approach to life. Foster certainly implies plenty of menace as a Stanley unable to control his emotional impulses of temper or lust as Blanche attempts to do. There are some odd shot choices in this National Theatre at Home production in which the nature of the revolve occasionally obscures the face of the actors – initially this is artistic, looking through sheer curtains or emerging from behind pillars, but it becomes increasingly annoying in Blanche's big showdown with Mitch (Corey Johnson). But its hard to take much away from this scintillating Streetcar, and as the National Theatre's weekly production gift now helps to generate vital donations for its partner venues, the kindness of strangers is more vital than ever.