Young Vic, London
30th August, 2014, matinee
Tennessee Williams’ most popular play is given a triumphant revival at the Young Vic in which Benedict Andrews brings out the how the play’s mythic level informs the realistic events in the play.
The play is one of binaries, with Southern Belle Blanche duBois leaving her old America home of Belle Reve to visit her sister Stella and her husband Stanley in an area stricken by poverty but filled with the hope of a new America. The play’s tumultuous events, fuelled by desire, sparks Blanche’s painful downward spiral into madness.
Much has been said about Magda Willi’s design; it revolves almost throughout and is highly effective. The revolve allows us to see into every part of Stanley and Stella’s small apartment from a 360 degree perspective: the characters using the bathroom, having sex, playing poker. Yet even though we have a private, almost cinematic, view the spinning set which sometimes obstructs it never allows us to be comfortable with what we see and so we’re only voyeurs into their world. You sometimes see the audience members across from you as you peer into the bubble that the characters inhabit. But the moving set also signifies Blanche’s descent; it even alternates its direction to hint at a dizzying effect. Furthermore, the white décor plays with the fascination with light in the play: Blanche hides from the light but ultimately can’t escape it as in Willi’s design, she is illuminated. But the whiteness also accentuates the production’s modern setting and represents the white heat of America’s South. In Andrews’ excellent programme interview, he talks of Elysian Fields also acting as a type of purgatory underworld, which is conveyed well through Jon Clark’s lighting. As it occasionally covers the set in bright, colourful light it becomes a hellish world in which to gaze.
Giving the play a contemporary setting strips away the romanticism and nostalgia perhaps associated with a conventional production of the play. It also gives the play a refreshed immediacy, reminding us of still relevant problems in America and the ever-resonant problems of obsession and poverty. However, there’s a certain intensity often achieved with the play’s original setting that I question if Andrews’ production misses. Yet even though the majority of the stage is taken up with the apartment set, we still see that the world outside is a poor community of prostitution and street sellers.
Gillian Anderson gives a first a rate performance as Blanche. She shields herself from bare bulbs so that it doesn’t show up her true vulnerability. She props herself up on furniture, seductively moving her legs, and displays a dainty southern giggle and grace to mask her painful past of fraught relationships. Beneath her derogatory comments lies the denial that she’s lost everything that she had. Indeed, the climax sees her cover herself in more makeup in a final attempt to grasp that person she once was. And at the end, it is extremely poignant to see her being led fully around the stage by the doctor and nurse. As she leans on the doctor she pleads to the audience, completely frail. And Cat Power’s Troubled Waters playing over it just heightens the contemplative end. It is this ending that makes the production’s mythic/ real divide work on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one.
Vanessa Kirby is alluring as Stella and brings out the way she hates Stanley’s brutality but is also wildly drawn to it. Ben Foster also stands out, bringing a military machoism to his tattooed Stanley and stripping away the romanticism often attributed to Marlon Brando’s portrayal. The entire company, though, is faultless. Their performances and the look and feel of the piece evoke a passionate heat which is indicative of the desire that drives this play.
I still find the play not as powerful in language as a Miller play but it in some ways has a much more painful ending in that all the characters survive. Williams often strived to avoid ‘pat’ endings and Streetcar is certainly a complex, powerful play rich with timely themes and strong motifs. A pinnacle production!
A Streetcar Named Desire runs at the Young Vic until 19th September. The play will be broadcast as part of NTLive to cinemas around the UK on the 16th September and, at a later date, around the world.