It is only fair to begin with a disclaimer: this reviewer does not like Tennessee Williams. It is not for want of trying and it is also appreciated that Civilian Theatre is very much in the minority with Williams being held in the highest esteem by a great many people who know a great deal more about the theatre.
However the point stands and after spending close to three and a half hours watching the Young Vic’s current production of A Streetcar Named Desire, and quite a bit longer letting opinions slowly ferment in the darkest recesses of the brain, it can only be concluded that we are faced with a conundrum – and that is how far a production can be even-handedly reviewed when the play itself is not personally held in particularly high regard.
Benedict Andrews’ stunningly visual and sumptuously performed version of Tennessee Williams’ most famous (and possibly greatest) play wonderful demonstrates the edge that theatre has over other narrative mediums; for in general every piece of cinema is seen as a new piece of cinema, even when a character – such as Frankenstein – is returned to we do not recognise it as the same film produced differently.
Perhaps only, outside of films that began life as stage plays, Gus Van Sant’s almost shot-for-shot remake of Psycho could be considered a genuine replica, and a 37% Rotten Tomatoes rating tells a story all of its own. Literature, that other narrative medium, is tied to its form and could never bear complete repetition of language even as it continually retraces its steps over stories passed down across generations.
It is only theatre where audiences are satisfied by directors going back to the same well – to Shakespeare, to Euripides, to Chekhov, to Williams – and seeing what can be made from the same materials. This desire allows a director to try and breathe new life into familiar conceits and allows the audience to revisit their favourite plays or continually challenge themselves against work that doesn’t appeal to them.
And so begins Civilian Theatre’s obsession with Tennessee Williams (and was there a more appropriate playwright to develop an obsession about?) Regarded as one of the great American dramatists, and with an undoubted flair for writing memorable characters, Williams’ stock is such that he is part of a very small band of playwrights that the commercial West End will take a chance on. As a result over the years this reviewer has watched (or perhaps endured) Night of the Iguana, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Baby Doll, The Glass Menagerie, The Fat Man’s Wife and now, finally, A Streetcar Named Desire. With the exception of The Glass Menagerie they have proved mainly dispiriting affairs where the southern melodrama successfully manages to match the ripeness of the language with equally ripe performances.
That production of The Glass Menagerie, at the Young Vic in 2010, was built on the back of an exciting new director in Joe Hill-Gibbins, two breakout performances from rising stars, Kyle Soller and Sinead Matthews (everything from Master and Margarita, The Changeling to Blurred Lines in the last couple of years) and a wonderful score. It demonstrated that no matter what you think of a playwright, or his style of writing, it is possible to extract excellence; for even the biggest critics of Tennessee Williams would never deny that the man could write (unfortunately he writes so well he sometimes seems to forget to know when to stop).
As it happens A Streetcar Named Desire not only has an exciting director in Benedict Andrews, two breakout performances from Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby (brilliantly taking more than she was given as Isabella in Edward II, and doing a similar job with Stella in Streetcar), and an interesting musical score. It also gives us an ingenious set design and a crackerjack lead performance from Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois.
Very much ‘the star’, it is difficult not to start with Anderson’s Blanche; simply put it’s a triumph and makes you realise why actors are so drawn to Williams’ women. They give so much and cry out for performing; it as close as female roles come to matching the intensity of the character driven studies of De Niro in his heyday. The key is avoiding the descent into parody, and Williams doesn’t make it easy. There are many times that the scales almost tip to far with Anderson risking entering Whatever Happened to Baby Jane territory; a reference possibly knowingly evoked with Anderson’s drunkenly applied make-up after she effectively throws Mitch out.
However she always brings it back from the edge; Anderson has real poise and manages the difficult task of portraying someone who is themselves contained within their own performance. Blanche exists in a world of illusion; if she has not quite lost herself within it, she has become so accustomed to the performance that it has long since become difficult to separate it from the reality.
She moves through the world as a series of tics that long ago ventured into parody; she has a childish, wheedling nature that is evoked in footstamps, handclaps and girlish giggles but she is capable of an imperious monstrous side that she uses to browbeat Stella. Anderson is magnificent at drawing the dual elements of her nature, particularly in the great scene where she dissects Stanley’s character and yet fails to see in him in her own nature.
It is the scene that most effectively draws together all the elements of the play and this is thanks to the wonderful set designed by Magda Willi. She has created a slowly revolving open-plan apartment with the outer-walls stripped away so that the audience can see through it all. As it turns the audience are given the opportunity to see every angle, every aspect of their lives.
During Blanche’s critique of Stanley, it means we watch Stanley arriving at the apartment and can bear witness to every inch of the silent fury that comes as a result of his humiliation. The resonance cannot be missed and it becomes the pivotal moment when Stanley will not rest until he has destroyed Blanche and brought her back to his level.
The constant revolving stage is not the distraction it could have been – although the switches in direction are never that clearly explained – and adds another level to Williams’ writing. It allows the audience to follow characters through periods when they are traditionally off-stage. Williams places his characters under the microscope and Andrew’s direction has taken this to its natural conclusion; when they are home, they are continually watched and under examination from all sides. At times it feels prurient as we voyeuristically consume their lives, drinking in not just the dramatic but also the private moments when it feels that no-one is, or should be, watching.
Alongside strong production design, the music and lighting cues work harmoniously with the emotional force of the play. The music is jarring and out of context, but so is the sound of the locomotive that Williams deliberately writes into the play at key moments. It is also helps move through one of the most irritating features of a Williams’ play, which is the need for excessively long scene changes. Here it does not fade to black but instead the action continues with the set changing around the characters continuing with their lives. The music helps to drive and build momentum rather than let it dissipate through blackout.
All the cast are excellent and if the plaudits will go to Anderson then mention must be made of another superb performance from Vanessa Kirby. Her Stella is absolutely heart-breaking; a performance of great depth and a steely maturity. It can be seen as a thankless role, as it is played in the shadow of such a big character and can risk seeming two dimensional as a result. However Kirby found life and vivacity in the role. For once it is a Stella who exerts some control of her situation and recognises what it is in her life that makes it valued. It is hard to agree with her decisions but she is no longer the just the cowed victim of the forces of nature that make-up Stanley and Blanche.
Indeed Civilian Theatre has always found Stella a far more interesting character than Blanche, and it is a shame how many productions will let her be lost between the Stanley-Blanche dynamic. Again it reflects another advantage of the set design in that it allows you to see all of the character in the production – and it is Stella who has a tendency to live in the quiet moments that would often pass unnoticed.
In the end I cannot reconcile my differences with Tennessee Williams and his overwrought, melodramatic style but equally I cannot deny that this is a marvellous production that manages the rare feat of marrying brilliant performances with first-rate direction. A View from a Bridge, The Crucible and now A Streetcar Named Desire, all within six months – can anywhere in the world match The Cut for showcasing classic American drama at the moment?
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