Blanche and the Blues
Sometimes a production comes along that makes you rethink your preconceptions of a classic play, and in the case of Benedict Andrews’ entirely new conception of Tennesse Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, there is considerable rethinking of approach and interpretation. For once, Andrew’s updating, creating an unusual setting and all kinds of tricks and surprises, comes across as an intelligent, unusual but apt re-imagining of an iconic text—not simply as a director’s idiosyncratic stamp on it.
This is as fresh a production as I could have imagined, and every actor is giving a stellar performance, most of all Blanche Dubois, compellingly played by Gillian Anderson, as a woman who has spent years hiding the truth from others and herself. Still fighting to preserve her image, she enters and struts around, pulling designer bags behind her, wearing sunglasses, determined. She comes across in this interpretation as a much less overtly fragile person than she is usually portrayed to be. But from the beginning, it’s clear that she’s nearing the end of her tether in a last attempt to stave off her fate and find some sort of peace and happiness. Her sexuality, her passions, her desires are one of the things this play is about; and they are at the fore in this production. She is not so much tremulous as desperate and trying heroically to control and hide that desperation.
The auditorium has been reconfigured so that the audience is sitting totally in the round with the lozenge stage in the centre, with its contemporary furniture and fixings; it begins to revolve as soon as Blanche takes her first drink. For a friend of mine, Rena Fogel, the set had to revolve. It acts as a visual metaphor for Blanche’s descent. As Blanche destabilizes and spirals downwards, the revolving stage creates its own parallel unease. You are not seeing everything, you are straining to see what is missing, what is evolving; the actor is close to you making an important speech but swept to the other end of the theatre as the stage goes round again, sometimes this way, sometimes that. Occasionally you really do miss important lines, facial expressions. The concept, however, is very strong.
We watch Blanche fiercely, desperately trying to fight off her situation, while Stanley, powerfully played by Ben Foster, is much more of a brute than usual. Even as you dislike him, even when he is at his most troublingly angry, you can understand why Stella has married him. Both Vanessa Kirby‘s Stella and Corey Johnson’s Mitch are presented with more strength of purpose than usual and are clear, yet nuanced, pendants to Stanley and Blanche, respectively. At no point does your sympathy settle – like the stage. it keeps revolving from one character to another.
Again and again, the interpretation of various lines make unexpected sense, make you rethink where you are. The jazzy music by Alex Baranowski is suitably atmospheric. Above all, you come away wanting to see the play again, read the text again, get to know it better, because Benedict Andrews makes it so clear that you’re in the presence of a classic. The carnal nature of the attractions and repulsions among the characters is powerful; Blanche, preening, wearing stilettos that seem perilously too high for her, contemptuous, ostentatious, staggeringly drunk at times, becomes a great tragic presence, reaching for a compromise that could save her, but thwarted by circumstances and by Stanley.
Despite its brilliant conception and cast, the play ultimately has to belong to Blanche Dubois; Gillian Anderson’s portrayal is an impressive feat of acting. She does not arrive mad – she’s plausible enough in her lies, in her ability to portray the character she wants people to think she is. But she is nervous, she is intense; we know that madness is possible if not necessarily inevitable at this point. As the play progresses, with its poker nights and revelations, we watch Blanche slowly begin to come apart psychologically, have moments of return and strength, show her wit and intelligence and sensitivity and also, at times, terrible snobbery and malice. But when she tells the story of her youthful marriage and its tragic ending, when she tells Stella what she really thinks of Stanley, or in the climactic confrontation near the end with Stanley, her power as an actress who believes in what she is playing is hypnotic, and every aspect of her struggle is clear. Finally there is the heartbreaking ending as she is led off to the asylum, circling the auditorium, clinging to the arm of the doctor, parading past every member of the audience.
This is a performance, a production, and a play to savour. There is always another way to interpret a great play; but this interpretation will be a benchmark and live in the memory for a long time to come.
A Streetcar Named Desire will be broadcast live to cinemas in the UK and elsewhere on Tuesday, 16 September 2014.