Gillian Anderson is currently thrilling the crowds at the Young Vic Theatre as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Director Benedict Andrews’ eye-catching take on the Tennessee Williams classic is a respectful updating of the play that aims to avoid nostalgia. The production isn’t faultless, but it is admirably rich in ideas.
The use of a revolving stage is sure to prove memorable. Magda Willi’s carefully neutral design takes us away from a period feel and focuses on the claustrophobia of the flat lived in by Blanche’s sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley, a place to which Blanche retreats in disgrace after losing the family estate and having a mental breakdown.
Making the show quite literally dynamic is cleverly done. Props are plentiful and extra characters circle the stage menacingly. It all adds time, though, as does some current, rather distracting pop music, so that, all in, the production is well over three hours. And while it looks great, the slow revolve must be hugely demanding on the cast. You can hear everything, though, which is no small achievement, and watching them becomes unusually intense.
Andrews’ interpretation of Blanche is stark, focusing on her alcoholism and mental health. Of course, Blanche is a victim, a tragic icon made moving by Anderson’s performance, but Andrews takes her descent into mental illness too much for granted – there could be more of a fight here and the audience, like her potential fiancé Mitch (the excellent Corey Johnson), should be taken in by her “magic” a little more.
There are also problems with Stella and Stanley. Divorcing the action from the 1940s doesn’t help explain the class distinction in the play. Vanessa Kirby gives an impassioned performance but seems literally out of time. Stanley fares even worse. Ben Foster provides an animal presence, but there is surely more to Stanley than the “ape” Blanche says he is. Foster is powerful, but his performance is robbed of subtlety.
There’s no doubt that this is Anderson’s show. For a director as bold as Andrews, this might seem predictable but the focus is on the pain in the play – which is brutally and powerfully conveyed. Anderson deals with the responsibility placed upon her and is tremendous. She’s sexy and desperate, giving a raw and urgent performance that, by the nature of the production, is distraught and messy at times.
Until 19 September 2014
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 1 August 2014 for The London Magazine