A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Benedict Andrews
Young Vic Theatre, / NT LIVE BROADCAST
9th October 2014
Blanche Dubois – Gillian Anderson
Stella Kowalski- Vanessa Kirby
Stanley Kowalski – Ben Foster
Mitch – Corey Johnston
This was a hot ticket this year … we tried and failed. The Young Vic is such an intimate close-to-the-action theatre, that we were more dubious than usual about a live broadcast. Rightly so, I think, as there is so much power in the performances you need to experience it in the room.
Then I thought. They use a constantly revolving stage to show the three areas in the apartment. At stalls level, that meant that you were surely constantly missing bits as doors and extreme angles on the action got in the way … it was a long rectangle. When the camera went high up so you could see the revolving stage, I thought that being in the gallery at the Young Vic would have been equally maddening … you could see, but you were watching constantly revolving action. All in all, the carefully filmed NT Live Broadcast with all the close ups, and putting the viewer in the right area, has major advantages. Michael Billington in The Guardian said:
The shifting focus sometimes becomes a distraction and makes the dialogue hard to hear: just as you’re getting into a scene, the characters float out of view. It is more important, I believe, that the play rather than the stage should be moving.
That’s what I’d guessed from the broadcast. We were in New Orleans this summer, and we passed by Tennessee Williams childhood home in Clarkesdale, Mississippi too. I say this every time I see an American play with an English cast. The accents are never perfect. The 1951 film had an English lead of course, in Vivien Leigh, but after doing Scarlett O’Hara she carried over a lot of mystique, and of course as Scarlett defined the Southern belle, Leigh could only be “right.” What a cast … Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden. Directed by Eli Kazan. Music by Alex North. The film defined Method acting in Brando’s role.
This year has seen A View From The Bridge and A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, and The Crucible just over the road at the Old Vic. The RSC’s 2015 season starts with Death of A Salesman. We are getting all the great American classics close together, all in first rate productions. There is a commonality: too many long speeches for my taste, reliance on a small but stellar core cast of three or four, great waves of emotive acting. I’ve loved all three I’ve seen this year, but it’s not my favoured theatrical genre.
Blanche and her little sister, Stella
The big concept, which they made much of, was setting it now, rather than in the late 1940s … it was originally performed in 1947. We discussed this vigorously afterwards. There’s no problem with modern costume or furniture per se, but Blanche is a product of the Old South. I think you could have taken it into the 60s, the era of The Help, but 2014? Is it really credible that we could have such a self-centred pampered ageing Southern belle? Blanche is the product of an era … a product of growing up in deeply segregated times too. I agree that as with Shakespeare, there’s no barrier to presenting other playwrights in 2014, but this is such a Southern tale. I didn’t get a sense of Southern heat or Southern ambience. There are anachronisms, from Stanley quoting Huey Long (Every Man is a King) to mentioning Xavier Cugat to the training camps for young soldiers just about to go off to war, which were in Mississippi. Who mentions Huey Long, the populist governor of Louisiana, in 2014? Long’s popularity has parallels with Mussolini. William’s play was defining a pivotal point of change, much of it resulting from the upheaval of World War II. Blanche’s old Southern aristocracy had fallen from its perch. Stanley is the new order, or even New Order. If you are updating it, you have to find a similar resonance in the new period. There isn’t any to be tweaked out by simply moving to 2014. A lot of the play is about this pivotal time, and I’d say the play is truly about that and loses by shifting its time period.
They talk about the quarter, presumably The French Quarter, and NOLA Tourism has renovated the French Quarter, if not the suburbs, to pre-Katrina levels. It’s still there. It still has those iron balconies. A touch of Southern Gothic would be good. Does modernizing gain? Well, the sexual bits are more explicit than Williams or Kazan dared, though it was all implied. The cast spend a lot of time dressing and undressing on stage, emphasizing how closely they are forced to live. Scene transitions are a major plus, executed with lights and music in full view.
Blanche dos not know Stanley is standing behind her, listening to her run him down
The four principal parts gave their all, and looked and sounded excellent. With Blanche, the costume could have been 50s much of the time in any case … as it has to be, I think. One of the virtues of the set is that we can see activity in all three areas at once … the living area, the bedroom area and the bathroom. Gillian Anderson gave a terrific performance … Blanche has to be a monster, sexually attractive, blowzy, vulnerable, lonely, pining for her lost gay husband, defensive, lost in fantasies and finally mad. Her last line ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers’ is heartbreaking as she is led away. The other main parts match her. Ben Fosters heavily-muscled Stanley is nasty enough, but then he has been invaded, called a pig and a Polack. He is a brute indeed.
After the poker party fight. Mitch looking at Stella
The production was excellent on physicality: smashed radios, thrown plates, screaming outside on the fire escape. Action scenes, such as the fight at the end of the poker party, are sudden, perfectly timed, seamless.
The music was excellent. Loud and clear, often the bass dominated and it was superb. Two excellent songs.
It was not faithful to text however. I noticed a “Go home already!” which I can’t think Tennessee Williams would have written, as he comes from the South, not Brooklyn. I did a search on the online PDF, and it’s not in the play, though ‘Go home, then’ is.