National Theatre Live Presents: Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Directed by Benedict Andrews, starring Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, Vanessa Kirby, Corey Johnson, Otto Farrant, Clare Burt, Branwell Donaghey, Troy Glasgow, Nicholas Gecks and Stephanie Jacob. Filmed as part of the production’s run at the Young Vic Theatre in London, which ended on 19 September 2014.
The first thing one notices is the sleek, minimal set design. Gone is the “raffish charm” of the weathered grey houses of 1940s New Orleans – their rickety outside stairs and galleries packed with quaintly ornamented gables – so vividly described by Williams on the first page of the play's script. What we find instead is a rectangular blueprint of the small two-room bedsit apartment Blanche DuBois arrives at after first stepping foot in Elysian Fields – a poor, working class quarter located “between the L&N tracks and the river” where her sister, Stella, lives.
Staged earlier this year at the Young Vic Theatre in London and screened locally as part of the National Theatre Live initiative, the set's modern, post-gentrification approach will continue to run through to all other elements of A Streetcar Named Desire as well, and is one of the main reasons for its incredible success. Another is its casting. With a running time of over three-and-a-half-hours, a production such as this would normally demand a great deal of stamina and concentration from even the most ardent of thespians, but thanks to its exceptional ensemble – lead by Gillian Anderson, Vanessa Kirby and Ben Foster – there is a rarely a moment where you aren't wholly reveling in the plot's ever-increasing tension.
Returning to the Young Vic following his acclaimed staging of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters – a gig that landed him a Best Director nod at the 2012 Critics’ Circle Awards – is inspired Australian director Benedict Andrews. A theatre-maker with a reputation for taking classic works and giving them radical overhauls – including tackling 10-hour long Shakespeare productions and staging operas in football stadiums – he once again finds the perfect creative playground through the Vic. The kicker this time is that they've allowed him to have Magda Willi’s three-dimensional, rectangular set revolve throughout the performance within a circle created by the audience seated all around it.
The perpetual motion, with various scenes often occurring simultaneously, as well as the effect of patrons being able to see each other through the set's structure/action, result in a singular theatrical experience. Not only does the spectator feel like a fly on the wall (or an onlooker waiting for an accident to happen), but there is a strong sense of complicity in faded Southern belle Blanche’s tragic downward spiral from the upper echelons of society and into the pits of insanity.
Clicking her Louboutins, sneering at the neighbourhood from behind her sunglasses and scurrying around looking for liquor when left alone, the brilliance of stripping the play of its traditional poetic realism further becomes powerfully clear as soon as Blanche (Anderson) first locks eyes with her sister’s (Kirby) husband, Stanley Kowalski (Ben Foster). Standing in the doorway clutching a bag of fresh meat from the butcher for his wife, there is something hungry and primal in the way they scrutinise at each other. One can almost see the sparks that sizzle between them. Only this time around, we realise, Blanche is not going to be the genteel anti-heroine, as we have come to know this character. Rather, we are confronted by a Blanche not afraid to match her opponents punch for punch.
Each scene takes the characters nearer and nearer to the edge of a chasm, and nowhere is this clearer than in Anderson’s performance, as her disillusioned character responds to the noose of madness growing tighter around her neck by way of constructing lie after grandiose lie in a desperate bid for survival. It makes for a staggering, almost overwhelming viewing experience. Hearing her deliver one of the play’s most iconic lines – “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” – before being led on a victory lap by a doctor and nurse through the theatre on her way to the asylum will break your heart.
Also allowing us to experience moments of genuine empathy for his traditionally “bad” character is Foster’s Stanley. Wearing a pair of dog tags suggesting he might be a soldier returned from Afghanistan, it is through subtle visual cues such as this that the director allows him to overcome the conventional one-dimensional limitations associated with his character. Similar to what Marlon Brando did in Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of the piece, he understands the type of acting required to pull off naturalism and brings a dangerous yet irresistible edge to Stanley. This is echoed in Kirby’s vehement portrayal of Stella, who makes it clear that, this is in part one of the reasons she keeps getting drawn (along with Blanche) back to him despite his abusive nature.
Disquiet, raw, violent, iconoclastic and featuring music by PJ Harvey, Jimi Hendrix and Swans in between scene changes, A Streetcar Named Desire is as compelling as it gets. With a very short run this month at Cinema Nouveau and The Fugard, it is rare and essential viewing.
Screening to more than 1 100 venues in over 40 different countries around the world, some of the other National Theatre Live productions to also look forward to in coming months include David Hare's Skylight (November), Sam Mendes' King Lear (December), the DV8 Physical Theatre's John (January), as well as the Bolshoi Ballet's Pharaoh's Daughter (November), The Legend of Love (November), The Nutcracker (February) and Romeo and Juliet (March).
A Streetcar Named Desire has a running time of 3hrs and 45mins (including a 20-minute interval). Performance dates are 22 and 23 October at 19:30 (Cinema Nouveau V&A Waterfront) and 28 October (The Fugard Theatre). For bookings, see www.cinemanouveau.co.za or www.thefugard.com.