A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1
Having studied Tennessee William’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at AS Level, I was super excited to see Gillian Anderson’s apparently stunning turn as the ultimate fading southern belle, Blanche DuBois, in the Young Vic’s critically acclaimed production. Whilst I couldn’t get tickets to the actual theatre, luckily National Theatre Live was on hand to deliver as usual.
Having recently been in New Orleans, France’s Australia, the sweaty, jazz-filled swampland where the play is set, I was eager to see how director Benedict Andrews would get this atmosphere across to the thousands watching around the country. The music (which you can listen to here) and lighting was modern and yet fitting; immediately giving the impression of heat and dirt, and that the ironically named Elysian Fields was a down-and-out neighbourhood. One of the great things about this production was that, whilst the action all took place in Stella and Stanley’s small apartment, the audience really get a sense of being in the heart of a busy, noisy, earthy area.
The 360 degree staging itself is clever; the entirety of the flat is exposed – the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom – but there is still enough space for characters to walk alongside it, ‘outside’ as it were. And, of course, there are the ever-important “rickety outside stairs”. The apartment itself slowly rotates throughout almost all the performance, allowing each member of the audience a slightly different view of what is happening. This did, unfortunately, make for quite a few irritating moments in the screening when bits of wall, furniture, curtains or doors would suddenly get in the way. I get that this may have been to imitate what the audience themselves were seeing, but as the cameras were a lot closer to the action, I felt this wasn’t that successful – I wanted to see the amazing acting taking place!
Blanche DuBois is one of the most complex, annoying and yet fascinating characters in literature (imho). Comparable with Martha from Edward Albee’s ‘Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ and the other most-famous Southern belle, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara from ‘Gone With The Wind’, Blanche is the ultimate sympathetic anti-hero. Although self-centred, vain, manipulative and, one could say, a liar, she has had a deeply traumatic past and as a result is fragile, a female lost in a masculine, misogynistic world and desperate to delude herself to make it all seem bearable: “I don’t want realism. I want magic!”
As such, Gillian Anderson, previously a hit in TV adaptations of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Bleak House’, had her work cut out trying to make her mark as this multifaceted protagonist. However, Anderson definitely shone amidst a strong cast. At first I wasn’t quite as impressed as I expected to be. Although, having listened to Lesley Manville on Front Row about the difficulties of projection whilst performing both to an audience and to a camera, I could understand why sometimes it seemed she was projecting a little too much, towards the beginning, she did seem slightly one tone.
However, as the play went on, and I got to thinking about it more, I realised this might be an artistic choice, rather than a fault. It reflected Blanche’s personality of constantly performing to everyone around her. Only in her refuge of the bath does it seem she truly feels physically and morally clean and isn’t putting on a show; and this is also the only place even we, the audience, don’t get to see her. Anderson’s act dropped as the drama intensified. For example, with gentle, bumbling Mitch (a loveable, heart-broken Corey Johnson) as she tells of her tragic past, her vulnerability came out, and as a result her tone became more realistic, more varied, and, truth be told, more interesting.
It was in the last, most powerful scene that Anderson’s acting chops were truly shown to their full effect. Blanche’s fragile ‘paper lantern’ exterior had been torn in the most brutal manner; Anderson truly looked and sounded unhinged. Whereas in some productions it feels as though the doctor’s appearance is just a way for Stella to get rid of Blanche, in this one felt that she really did need to be taken somewhere safe; to be taken out of this harsh world, somewhere that she would no longer face the troubles and where she could retreat to the ‘magic’. Anderson’s transformation from her first entrance to her last, poignant, limping exit was superb, and as she hobbled away from her sobbing sister, a stunned hush fell over the auditorium – both in the theatre and the cinema.
‘Streetcar’, however, is not a one-woman show, and Anderson is supported by two strong actors in Vanessa Kirby as Stella, Blanche’s younger, down-to-earth sister, and Ben Foster as the animalistic, threateningly attractive Stanley. It’s interesting that, whilst Stella seems mostly more willing to face up to unattractive realities than Blanche, her choice at the end to disbelieve Blanche’s shocking story is exactly what her sister does constantly – both avoid realism and want magic, and both end up trapped in some way. Kirby is understated and yet heart-breaking in this, and Foster’s Stanley provides the perfect motive for this. Whilst not nearly as sexually charismatic as Marlon Brando (and really, who could be?!), Foster does a good job of portraying Stanley as a man throbbing with masculinity and animalism, and his weeping cry pleading Stella to come back to him was a particular highlight.
All in all, this is a great production of a fantastic, classic play. I can’t quite give it top marks, simply because I felt Anderson took quite a time to build up to the marvellous power of the second act, and because of the rotating stage. It is worth noting, though, that I’m sure this works excellently live; just not while being filmed at those angles. Still, the acting is brilliant and the production captures the essence of sleazy, dirty, hot, vibrant New Orleans perfectly. And, to be honest, it’s worth seeing simply for the last scene, which is just sheer flawlessness.
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at the Young Vic Theatre: 4/5 stars