Monday, 15 September 2014

Theatre Review: A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic

From the moment an impeccably dressed Gillian Anderson teeters across the stage as Blanche, designer luggage in tow and giant sunglasses covering most of her face, you know you’re in safe hands. If anything, she looks even more out of place than Vivien Leigh in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film rendition.

Benedict Andrews’ A Streetcar Named Desire still channels the sultry heat of New Orleans, where the French Quarter is home to a riotous cacophony of folk. However, this new stage version at the Young Vic uses modern trappings. Eunice (Clare Burt) is pure American white trash in frayed denim mini-skirt, leggings and open toed cork mules. It’s a laidback world where people drink late and rise late, and Stella (Vanessa Kirby) slips into it easily, ditching the airs of Belle Reve for midriff baring halter tops and skin-tight jeans. But it’s a risky world too. What looks like an old bruise on Stella’s back hints at her husband’s violence (or it’s simply a bruise. As Freud didn’t say, sometimes a banana is just a banana).

Anderson brings out the contradictions in Blanche—the moth-like destructibility but also an inner hardness. I like this Blanche – and I don’t like her. She’s catty, harsh, but also needy. She deals in fantasies but also understands the world better than her sister. Blanche’s attempts to cling to her old life and money, by wearing her armour of designer labels, barely disguise her fragility – shaky ankles that look like they might snap at any moment and neurotic nervousness as she explores the cramped apartment, looking for liquor. Anderson is funny too—she cranks up the humour of Blanche’s snobbish tendencies.

Ben Foster as Stanley is a slow-burner. At first I worried he didn’t have the presence (alas – Marlon Brando has forever set the bar ridiculously high) but soon you start to see his menace. Quiet, explosive, quiet, explosive, and there are some great touches in his mounting viciousness towards Blanche. At one point he offers her the phone as she waits, teetering on the brink of insanity for a call from Mitch, before pulling it back from her. A total psych.

The weak link for me is Stella. Vanessa Kirby plays Stella as a girly, floaty young thing, caught in a permanent post-coital glow. Well, that’s okay, but her accent kept slipping out of the American south and into something distinctly British (and possibly northern) in the showing we saw.

The staging turns us all into voyeurs. As anyone familiar with Streetcar knows, the action only takes place in Stanley and Stella’s tiny apartment. Kazan famously played out the growing claustrophobia, and literal and metaphorical entrapment of Blanche by moving the walls of the set in closer and closer throughout the scenes. 

The design here is similarly effective. The whole stage is a raised rectangle with the “rooms” of the apartment, however no walls. We can see through each room and the action going on in different parts simultaneously. The stage also rotates continuously – sometimes changing direction, mirroring Blanche’s tumultuous state of mind. The effect is fascinating. You see everything from different angles—sometimes your view is obscured, sometimes you’re forced to focus on Stanley in the living space while Stella and Blanche are talking in the bathroom at the other end. You’re an outsider looking in or a rubbernecker on the sidelines, watching the car wreck play out. It reminds us there are no simple answers with this play.

Benedict Andrews’ take on Tennessee Williams is captivating. It’s edgy, stifling, and simultaneously modern and retro (we get blasts of P J Harvey and Chris Isaak). Anderson is definitely the glue holding it all together though. She’s absolutely mesmerising, right up to the tragic mess she becomes, complete with red lipstick all over her face and then finally the broken, lost woman who has always depended on the kindness of strangers. Watch it if you can—it’s being shown in a live stream in UK cinemas.

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