Writer: Tennessee Williams
Director: Benedict Andrews
We are all dependent on the kindness of strangers right now, strangers who are sharing plays they have made to keep the theatre community alive during lockdown. 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. Suspicious of his sister-in-law Stanley sets about discovering why she left her town so quickly, uncovering a trail of scandal and deception. As the temperature rises in the long hot summer, tensions boil over in the two-room apartment and Blanche’s grip on reality starts to slip.
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. She arrives in a nervous state that only becomes more complex over the 2 hours and 50-minutes of this version, her drunkenness and delusion increasing with every scene as the flashes of the past return to haunt her. 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. You hardly want to look at anyone else
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 is just a note of desire missing from the performance however; his blanket hate failing to explain the semi-obsession he develops for his unwelcome house guest that underlines the tragic inevitability of the date they have always had.
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.
Streaming here until 28 May 2020