Saturday, 13 September 2014

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

Since first studying A Streetcar Named Desire at A level and subsequently having seen two of his plays since, Tennessee Williams has become a playwright on my theatrical radar whose plays I will endeavour to see whenever possible. As a result of this and my decision to base my final year dissertation on Williams' plays, the chance to see a production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the elusive Young Vic was not one I was going to pass up without a fight (in fact I spent six hours battling with the overpopulated ticket site before I was finally successful).

Having seen a faultless production of The Glass Menagerie at the Young Vic a few years earlier my expectations were high, and the consistently positive reviews that were appearing from the press increased this anticipation. I was wary, however, of the modernisation of this production, as such risks can often leave fans and admirers of the literature a little disappointed. 

The image of Blanche entering the stage in stilettos and a beige trench coat, whilst sporting a designer-esque wheely suitcase and oversized sunglasses is a tricky one to adjust to, and at first I couldn't shake the idea of a footballer's wife, but once first impressions are pushed aside, Blanche's transition from 1940s southern belle to modern-day fallen aristocrat is an innovative and well thought-out move.

It is during productions such as this one that The Young Vic's studio set-up really comes into play. Seating occupies every wall of the space and director Benedict Andrews has the rectangular stage area occupy the middle of the space. This stage, which remains constant throughout, is the entirety of Stella and Stanley's apartment, and asides from the bathroom which is a room in it's own right, the rest of the apartment is made up of one room, with only a curtain to create a divide between the bedroom and the remaining space.

Once Blanche steps into the apartment and enters Stella and Stanley's lives, the stage begins to rotate and only ceases during the scene in which Stanley rapes Blanche. This addition to the play is invaluable; at its most basic level it highlights the changing temperaments of characters as it speeds up and slows down, but the rotating stage's real beauty is in the underlying metaphors that it carries throughout the production. 

The constantly changing view of the stage is a frequent reminder that Williams does not side with any one of the characters or portray them as good and evil counterparts. You see the importance of Blanche's facade as she carefully prepares herself before entering a room, you feel Stella's overbearing guilt at what she is to do to her sister as she waits for Blanche to come out of the bathroom, and you can understand Stanley's frustration at having his territory invaded when he paces up and down waiting for Blanche to finish changing. As the actors walk around the stage, stepping over our feet, the audience is dragged into the claustrophobia of this spinning world from which Blanche can't find an escape. As Benedict Andrews says in the programme: 'it's relentless, doesn't stop'. The constant rotation is disorientating and muddling, in a way that blurs the lines between wrong and right, between morality and deceit, and between reality and pretence. 

One aspect of the modernisation of this production which seems to jar a little with William's original vision, is the clinical feel of Stella and Stanley's apartment. The space is decked out in white from floor to ceiling, with a collection of characterless furniture that could have been pulled straight from the pages of an Ikea catalogue. Yes the apartment is messy and littered with empty diet coke cans and (presumably) dirty underwear, the apartment itself seems above the couple's reach and doesn't match Blanche's disgust or comment that she couldn't have pictured it in her 'worst dreams'.

As with most of Tennessee Williams' works, music plays an important part in evoking tension, accompanying silent passages and giving you an insight into characters' deepest thoughts. At its best, Paul Arditti and Alex Baranowski's selection pummels Blanche's fear and anxiety into your head-space. At its most metaphoric, it allows us to hear the music that haunts Blanche's thoughts. And at the final hurdle, the chosen song offers a chilling accompaniment to the aftermath of Blanche's downfall.

Though some readings and versions of Streetcar seem to place Stella as a secondary character and more of a dramatic device to accompany Blanche and Stanley's conflict, Benedict Andrews modernisation really brings out Stella's prevalence and significance. Vanessa Kirby's Stella is real and has her own personality; above everything she is loyal, and it is this fierce loyalty to both her sister and husband that leads to Stella's internal conflict. Perhaps the most moving moment of the play is watching Kirby's Stella crumble with guilt on the stairs outside the apartment as Blanche is being approached by the doctors inside. 

Nowadays our collective views on domestic violence and misogyny are strong and we aren't easily forgiving, but Kirby conveys Stella's motives in such an accessible way that we begin to comprehend why victims of the above continue to return to their abuser, and that is certainly something to be accredited for. 

Benedict Andrews' post-war Stanley has the appearance and mannerisms of a thug. Yet Ben Foster's portrayal allows you to sympathise with his frustration and the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia that Blanche enforces. Foster's Stanley pulls out every fragment of pride that William's has written into the character's dialogue. Stanley is proud to be American, he is proud of his home, his way of life and his girl. And this pride fits hand in hand with Stanley's animalistic conduct. As much as you try to despise Stanley for his actions, you are shown repeatedly that he is a product of his environment, and his primal instincts mean that his desire to protect what is rightly his comes before any rational thought. 

In any ordinary production Kirby and Foster's performances would be near impossible to overshadow, but it is Gillian Anderson's Blanche that steals the show, and is arguably  responsible for the standing ovations. Anderson becomes Blanche, reinvents Blanche, and plays her with such conviction that truth and facade overlap in this extra dimension, leaving the audience just as disorientated as the characters. It seems that Benedict Andrews has had Anderson draw on Blanche's provoking side - she thrives off attention and often appears to go out of her way to seduce Stanley by prancing around the space in very little clothing. 

What's most impressive about Anderson's portrayal is how she reaches the uttermost depths of Blanche's mental turmoil and her physical and emotional dedication is visible throughout. It's undoubtedly an award-winning performance.

Corey Johnson's depiction of Mitch is also worth a mention, as he brings out genuine human elements of the character that are often overlooked. Once Mitch has discovered the truth about Blanche and begins to confront her, Johnson's performance is remarkably raw and deeply unsettling, in a way that suggests we are all capable of Blanche's mentality, if life is so unkind.

Benedict Andrews' explosive modern retelling of this classic play reminds us that the issues that Williams was writing about - vanity, desire, violence, loneliness, deceit and insecurity - are still today universal human truths and struggles.

The Young Vic's production of A Streetcar Named Desire is to be broadcast live across UK cinemas on 16th September as part of The National Theatre's NT Live programme, and it will be interesting to see if the performance is conveyed equally as well on screen.





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