A Street Car Named Desire

Young Vic Theatre,

Celebrity casting has its merits. But it has its drawbacks too. The great bonus of Benedict Andrews’ visceral new staging with X-Factor’s Gillian Anderson is that although the spotlight inevitably falls on her – she is after all on stage for nearly the whole duration of the play’s three hours – this is par excellence a company show, an ensemble tour de force.

This is partly because as with Trevor Nunn’s 2002 National production starring Glenn Close and Iain Glen as Tennessee Williams’ fragile and brutalising sparring partners, Andrews spins us through Blanche’s last stand within a revolving stage.

But there the comparison should lie. For Andrews’ Streetcar couldn’t be more different to Nunn’s Streetcar which missed being A Streetcar Named Desire, the musical, by a millimetre – though, interestingly, Andrews, an Australian, who directed one of the most thrillingly original Three Sisters of the past decade in this same theatre a couple of years ago, like Nunn, uses music as an atmosphere creator and scene shifter, if entirely differently.

As Magda Willi’s open plan, tenement block spins at first imperceptibly then gathers speed in line with Blanche’s descent, so Andrews ranges through the musical spectrum of the past several decades – moody blues giving way to nerve-jangling hard metal rock, giving way to Roy Orbison and Connie Francis ballady tear-jerkers.

The musical asides are not gratuitous, they set the tone perfectly for the next episode in Blanche’s disintegration – Blanche, the remnant of New Orleans’ old southern world of affectation and prejudice but also refinement – coming up jarringly against a new American world in the shape of her sister Stella’s tough, testosterone-filled Polish-American husband Stanley Kowalski.

Again and again in Andrews’ staging and in the card games Ben Foster’s muscular Stanley shares with his neighbours and ex-service pals, echoes of The Deer Hunter, the film about American Russian steelworkers and the Vietnam war, kept coming to mind.

But Williams wasn’t writing about foreign wars but rather class and culture wars at home, about the destructive power of desire, family guilt and the mechanisms of survival in civilian life.

T S Eliot once wrote that human kind cannot take very much reality. And Blanche’s agonised, `I don’t want reality, I want MAGIC’ shatteringly epitomises the flights of fantasy into which we all sometimes need to escape but in Blanche with increasing desperation.

As Blanche, Gillian Anderson cuts a convincingly teetering, blonde figure, at first smartly dressed, if already too much clinging to the bottle for safety, but as mental stability and need for protection elude her, ever more garish.

Anderson is fantastic, in many respects. It’s hard to imagine a more complete physical embodiment of Williams’ creation. Or one of such courage as she makes a faltering but complete circuit of the stage, led by the doctor who is to commit her to an asylum. We are all forced to share in her incarceration.

But vocally, partly due to Andrews’ revolving stage and partly due to Anderson’s acute southern accent, much of Williams’ wonderful flights of lyric-poetic dialogue go for nought, vapourising into the four corners of the Young Vic’s in-the-round auditorium.

Clarity of text here is at a premium – which, in a sense is tragic. Andrews’ staging is a triumph of visual, atmospheric and physical conjuration betrayed by its over-ripe vocal naturalism. Seeing it up close in cinemas – Streetcar has an NT Live viewing on Sept 16 – may prove even more satisfying for some of us. And fruitful.

In the meantime, the production is a sell-out, returns only. But special mention must be made of Vanessa Kirby as Stella. Ever watchful, ever concerned for the well-being of her erring sister, she’s the unsung hero of this production of one of the great plays of the twentieth century – a piteous cry of anguish that turns emotional and mental vulnerability into something transcendent, endowed with a mythic beauty.

First published in londongrip in Aug 2014