A Streetcar Named Desire

Tennessee Williams
Young Vic Theatre
Young Vic Theatre / National Theatre Live

Blanche DuBois (Gillian Anderson) Credit: Johan Persson
Steve (Branwell Donaghey), Stanley Kowalski (Ben Foster), Stella Kowalski (Vanessa Kirby) Credit: Johan Persson
Mitch (Corey Johnson) and Company Credit: Johan Persson

The latest National Theatre Live release is this 2014 recorded production of Tennessee Williams’s groundbreaking play A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Gillian Anderson as the complex and tragic figure of Blanche DuBois—a gift of a part for any actress and one that Anderson drills down to the soul of in this visceral, emotionally charged production.

The original play is set in 1930s New Orleans and revolves around young couple Stella and Stanley’s small apartment in a downbeat neighbourhood. Not long married, they are struggling to make ends meet with Stan adrift after leaving the army and Stella keeping it together in spite of his moods and flashes of violence.

Into their lives comes Stella’s sister Blanche: vulnerable, damaged and herself adrift after losing the family property in undisclosed circumstances. She is the cuckoo in this nest that changes the dynamic of the couple’s relationship and as the heat rises causes a powder-keg to explode with disastrous consequences.

Director Benedict Andrews has chosen to try to update the setting to a more modern feel, although this does sit uneasily with a play that references Depression era America and the social mores of the time.

The set on stage is a flimsy open box which allows the audience to see each room in the apartment simultaneously. This doesn’t lend itself to the closed-in, claustrophobic feel that the play should inspire, and the furniture is too modern to give a real sense of a steamy New Orleans and too white to reflect the darker layers of the play. But it does give rise to some interesting moments when we see a character overhearing conversations they are not meant to and their reactions.

Gillian Anderson gives a tour de force performance as Blanche, making her skittish, vulnerable and needy yet seductive and knowing at the same time. Her relationship with her sister Stella is at times tender, at others manipulative.

Her relationship with Stanley is also complex, ranging from sparring to flirting, standing up to him yet wanting his attention. And her scenes with would-be lover Mitch (Corey Johnson) are beautifully awkward, at times almost unbearable, as two lost souls reach out and fail to connect.

But Anderson is not standalone—the rest of the cast are equally stunning. All the actors take the play by the scruff of the neck and shake out a great deal of emotion and nuance from characters that are far from two-dimensional.

Vanessa Kirby’s Stella is patient and kind, genuinely in love with her husband and touchingly concerned for her sister, willing to forgive both their weaknesses but hence torn between them as they seek to destroy each other.

Ben Foster nails Stanley perfectly: a bully, yes, but one who resorts to physical violence because that’s all he has known; a man who genuinely loves and has a tender side but whom cultural stereotyping has forced to take a hard line; who believes passionately in his role as ‘head of the house’ and whose worst nightmare is to be patronised.

As the set continually revolves, so too the lives of the characters spiral out of control. They are all damaged in some way and it is inevitable they will bring each other down. After Stella and Stan’s fight scene, when he clings to her asking for forgiveness, there is the feeling that all the characters are similarly clinging on, trying to prevent being swept into the abyss of loneliness and desolation.

This is a powerful production and if the set and the modern soundtrack fails to capture the spirit of a steamy New Orleans, the actors more than make up for it with a pacy, sensuous performance that is not afraid to get up close and physical.

Ultimately, Williams gives us no easy answers—life is messy and sometimes you just have to do the best with what you have got. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you are with. A salutatory reminder in these difficult days.

Catch this in the next few days—only available till next Wednesday; well worth your time.

Reviewer: Suzanne Hawkes