Thursday 7 August 2014

Theatre review: A Streetcar Named Desire

If a sign of what makes "event theatre" is how hard it is to get tickets, then Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire must be the biggest show of the year. Even for a ticket-booking ninja like me the experience was traumatic, featuring as it did a woefully unprepared and overloaded website, and nearly 24 hours' worth of assaults on the booking link before I could get anything. At least those who do manage to get seats will have as good a view regardless of where they end up, thanks to one of the most notable features of Benedict Andrews's production. Andrews was last at the Young Vic two years ago with a Three Sisters that brought Chekhov both into the present day and out of the traditional trappings, and he does the same now for Tennessee Williams. The New Orleans of this Streetcar is decidedly modern-day white trash, Magda Willi's set the skeleton of a small prefab apartment that Stella Kowalski (Vanessa Kirby) shares with her husband Stanley (Ben Foster.)

Stella's background was moneyed and rather grand, but she's settled into the downturn of her fortunes. But when her sister Blanche (Anderson) comes to stay, she brings with her airs and graces that bely the fact that she's mismanaged affairs so badly their family home's been repossessed. And her affected ways soon clash with the gruff ex-soldier Stanley.

Anderson is the star name but for the first act this is Ben Foster's show. Stanley Kowalski is a character strongly associated with one performer1, but Foster has his own take on him: Not sympathetic as such, and some of his actions can never be forgivable, but neither is this Stanley inherently cruel. He's a lumbering brute whose movements sometimes put me in mind of Frankenstein's creature in the Danny Boyle production. His many tattoos and ever-present dog-tags mean his military background is more apparent than in other productions I've seen, lending a suggestion of post-traumatic stress to his violence and confusion. The scene of Stanley overhearing Blanche describing him as an evolutionary throwback is powerfully done, and marks a turning point as his campaign of terror against her from there on has the feel of an underestimated man bringing down someone who believes herself to be superior.

Anderson gets to assert her presence more after the interval as her character unravels, and Andrews' production is all about taking us right inside Blanche's descent into madness. The entire set is on a revolve that starts spinning the moment she takes her first drink and never stops, but as Blanche's web of lies is taken apart around her and she retreats into the persona of a grotesque prom queen, its movements become more erratic. The moments when the revolve changes direction feel like punctuation marks in her mental unraveling and the creepily comic scene of her throwing herself at a teenage paperboy (Otto Farrant) takes on a darker meaning when we learn more of her past. The modern setting may have taken away the final tragic blow of the implication that Blanche will be lobotomised, but the production replaces that with a glimpse of the mental landscape she'll have to spend her life in instead.

Kirby, Corey Johnson as Blanche's would-be suitor Mitch and the rest of the cast lend strong support, but this production more than most is focused on the two central characters, the whole play coming across as a psychological thriller that leads up to the one-on-one confrontation. As seems to be becoming a trend on The Cut, the production runs noticeably longer than this play usually does, and while the time doesn't pass quickly this intense psychological dig into the play is never dull.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams is booking until the 19th of September at the Young Vic (returns and day seats only; live cinema screening on the 16th of September.)

Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes including interval.

1Ned Flanders

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