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.