As the summer theatre season draws to a close, A Streetcar Named Desire is just about the last of the big-name productions that has elsewhere seen film stars Bill Nighy, Carey Mulligan and Kathleen Turner pitch up on the London stage. A sell-out before it opened at the Young Vic, Gillian Anderson’s Blanche Dubois was hotly anticipated and widely praised, with critics unanimously hailing it the performance of a lifetime for her. Written in the late 40s, Tennessee Williams’s most famous play is the story of Blanche who has lost possession of the family home and comes to stay with her sister Stella in a New Orleans tenement block during a hot summer. Blanche’s refined manner and romantic ideals are at odds with Stella’s macho husband Stanley and the two engage in an intense battle of wills. As the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tiny flat sets in, the truth about Blanche and her history emerges with dangerous consequences.
The most striking thing about the Young Vic’s production is its modern setting, bold use of coloured lights and slowly revolving set which gives the entire audience, seated in the round, a chance to see Stella and Stanley’s apartment from every angle. The design, by Magda Willi, is a simple kitchen, bedroom and bathroom with a gauzy curtain which can be pulled across the centre to form semi-separate rooms. Scenes are dazzling lit in bold purples, greens and yellows – no coincidence in this world of domestic violence that these act as symbolic bruises.
The rotation in some sense adds a great deal, both reinforcing the growing instability of the central relationships and bringing things in and out of focus, while acting as marker for significant shifts in tempo. It speeds up at moments of high drama, particularly when Blanche and Stanley are alone, or the spin changes direction suddenly to increase the disorientating effect. The movement also gives a sense of the characters being on that titular Streetcar, unable to alight until it reaches its final destination – reinforcing that the battle between Blanche and Stanley is being fought to the end. It has its downsides of course; you do miss bits of the action, and sometimes the words, because bits of stairs or kitchen block your view. This did happen several times at crucial points which was frustrating and actually a little alienating.
Needless to say Gillian Anderson is spectacular as the troubled Blanche. She totters around in enormous heels and big sunglasses, playing the southern belle with a girlish ease. Yet, for all her simpering mannerisms, there’s something of the predator about her as well, dark and threatening. She all but inhales the boy who comes to the door, and parades wantonly in front of the thin curtain as she gets undressed near Stanley’s poker game. Anderson’s vocal control is very impressive moving effortlessly from giggling flirtation to sultry seductress, and then as Blanche is overwhelmed by the truth and begins to lose her grip, she shows her drunkenly clinging on to the tatters of her character and not quite sure which of her identities to assume. This is the real strength of Anderson’s performance, you can never quite tell which version is the real Blanche – lady or temptress – and as these two personalities merge and then splinter, neither does she.
Despite Vanessa Kirby’s variable accent, her Stella does a good job of conveying her obsessive love for her husband and how her loyalties are tested by her sister’s visit. You certainly get the sense that something shifts in their marriage during the course of the play and it will never be quite the same. Ben Foster’s Stanley is imposingly macho, quite capable of crushing the fragile Blanche, yet somehow unable to entirely outwit her. I didn’t quite believe in his irresistibility however and it would have been interesting to explore the class dimension in his performance – the extent to which Stanley is out of his depth with people with different backgrounds and aspirations which could add an extra layer of vulnerability to his clash with Blanche.
I have to admit to feeling a tiny bit disappointed when I left the theatre but that’s because my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high. Their earlier version of A View From the Bridge was so powerful that I was thinking about it for hours afterwards. I thought I’d feel the same about Streetcar, and while this is an all-but-perfect production the occasional alienation from the action meant it didn’t quite blow me away as I’d hoped. But it certainly deserves its unanimous plaudits and is absolute must-see theatre, particularly for Anderson’s astonishing Blanche that really overshadows everything else. There’s a daily ballot for tickets at 5pm (1pm for matinees) so put your name down every day until you get in. If not, then NT Live are wisely broadcasting it to cinemas on 16 September. This may be the end of the season but this exciting production will send it out in a blaze of glory.
A Streetcar Named Desire is at the Young Vic until 19 September with a £20 daily ticket ballot drawn at 5.30pm (put your name down at 5pm). It will be broadcast to cinemas via NT Live on 16 September.