A Streetcar Named Despair (Wait, hang on a second – ed.)

A Streetcar Named Desire – Young Vic, until 19 September 2014 (Tickets) (NT Live Performance Info)

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 Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois in Streetcar at the Young Vicrecesses 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.

76596630_vanessa-kirbyAnd 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.

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The Fat Man's Wife, Canal Cafe Theatre, February 2014 - courtesy Simon Annand 12

Exclusive: Tennessee Williams in restrained play shocker

The Fat Man’s Wife – Canal Café Theatre, selected days until 02 March 2014

The Fat Man's Wife, Canal Cafe Theatre, February 2014 - courtesy Simon Annand 1

Tennessee Williams’ has always been a playwright that I find easier to admire than to enjoy. His heady blend of American naturalism and fevered southern gothic melodrama sounds such an appealing combination that it is hard to pin down why I find his work such a struggle. Yet time after time after time, be it Baby Doll, Night of the Iguana, Suddenly, Last Summer, Sweet Bird of Youth and, yes, even you, Streetcar (with or without Brando) guaranteed I will find my brain slowly turning to molasses as sure as if I was right there in the evening heat of the Mississippi Delta.

However the Canal Café Theatre’s production of The Fat Man’s Wife, previously unstaged in the UK and never seen anywhere before 2004, perhaps provides a clue to my troubles; length. Many of Williams’ plays are just Fat Mans wifetoo long. The Fat Man’s Wife, although far from a classic, comes in at a trim fifty-five minutes and could be nearer fifty if some of the pauses in this generally solid production were not quite so pregnant.

The shorter running time see Williams present something more akin to a light mood piece than the cloying richness of his more baroque work,  whilst the metropolitan setting with its urbane characters means everything stays just about the north side of the Mason-Dixon line and avoids falling into Williams’ favourite Southern state: grotesque.

The sense of Williams’ work being closer to an examination of mood than a fully developed play suits an evening that is not dissimilar to seeing a seasoned jazz trio perform some improvisations on a Sunday afternoon; you realise that whilst the surface of The Fat Man’s Wife is fresh and new, underneath there is the emergence of motifs that will repeat again and again through his work or an idea will spark and you can see how later it will be bent and refracted in a new way to power a later, more mature drama. This recycling of themes and ideas in later works is hardly something limited to Williams but rarely can it be seen so clearly.

There is the older female character flirting with the idea of a relationship with a younger man, the fear of age and growing old alone is present, the gap between the optimism of youth and the realism of age and the tear between the grim truth of reality and unobtainable fantasy; these are all ideas that even at this early stage Williams was clearly playing around with and would later return to and develop into his best known work.

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