“Gillian Anderson gives the performance of her career as Blanche DuBois in a raw, emotional and deeply unsettling Young Vic production.”
I staggered out of this shattering production of Tennessee Williams’s bruising modern classic feeling shaken, stirred and close to tears.
Never have I seen a production of the play that was so raw in its emotion, so violent and so deeply upsetting.
First staged in 1947, the piece is usually staged in the period in which it was written.
The iconoclastic director Benedict Andrews is having none of that. The action is set in present day New Orleans, with great blasts of tumultuous rock music by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Chris Isaak.
The staging is equally compelling, with all the action taking place in a sleek modern apartment, which revolves almost constantly throughout the play so that our view of what’s happening keeps taking on fresh perspectives. We see everything from the kitchen to the lavatory in this cramped flat where resentments simmer in the New Orleans heat until they boil over in rage, terror, guilt and mental breakdown.
All this might sound like a tricksy directorial ego trip but the effect is to make us see a familiar play with fresh eyes, as if we are experiencing it for the first time. We often stage Shakespeare in modern dress, Andrews seems to be saying. Why not Tennessee Williams too?
The acting is superb, with Gillian Anderson giving the performance of her career as Blanche DuBois, the faded Southern belle of a big Mississippi mansion who has lost her home before the action begins and loses her mind by play’s end.
Petite and vulnerable, she captures the syrupy southern charm of the woman which so provokes her blue-collar brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, and you readily understand why he finds her affected ways so infuriating. But as the play progresses, Anderson devastatingly captures a woman whose options are running out and who is getting ever closer to the end of her rope. Suddenly her lies and fantasies of a better life seem almost heroic, and her final crack-up is almost too painful to watch.
Ben Foster, sweaty, burly and impressively tattooed, brings a thrilling edge of violence to the stage as Kowalski, while Vanessa Kirby as his wife Stella is poignantly torn between her husband and her sister. Nor does she leave any doubt that it is in part her husband’s violence that attracts her. This is not a view that goes down well these days and it is part of the courage of both the play and the production that this issue isn’t shirked.
The show lasts three and a half hours, but there isn’t a moment when the tension slackens or attention lapses. It is an absolute knock-out.
Author: Charles Spencer
“Gillian Anderson gives a shatteringly powerful performance”
You can say what you like about this production, but it's definitely not underwrought. No, sir. We're in New Orleans though not as we have known it in previous stagings of Tennessee Williams's masterpiece.
Gone are the “the quaintly ornamented gables” and the “lyricism” that's redolent of decay.
The audience sit in a great circular sweep round Magda Willi's revolving set which presents the Kowalskis' home as a clinical, cramped, white modern apartment locked in an oblong cage-like structure that professedly invokes the paintings of Francis Bacon.
The design also made me think of the architect Le Corbusier. He said that a house was “a machine for living in”. Here the flat looks like a machine for driving one another violently insane in. It's figuratively open-plan; there's no hiding place.
As the resolve goes on its slow, fateful turn, we see everything: Blanche with her head down the loo; Stanley, vicious-drunk, dunked in the bath. The clothes are contemporary designer-label.
The music that both underscores the drama and erupts in the deliberately mood-breaking scene changes comes from the likes of Chris Izaak (why no Rufus Wainwright who, to my mind, is most Williams-like genius now operating?).
Director Benedict Andrews's aim is to jolt the audience out of any cosy, complacent sense of familiarity with this playwright's world and to pay him the tribute of radical renewal that we have no difficulty with accepting in revivals of Shakespeare.
At the end of the end of the three-and-half hour duration, Gillian Anderson's shatteringly powerful and persuasive Blanche, mad now and being hoodwinked to asylum, makes an unhurried, stately progress round the perimeter of the space on the arm of the doctor, and she gazes upwards with a fragile smile, as if graciously acknowledging the wonder and the gallantry of the universe.
It's a sheerly haunting and properly protracted sequence that seems to take us back to the youthful beauty and poetry in the character's soul before causing her gay husband's suicide sent her on a drunken downward spiral.
Andrews says in the programme that the play moves simultaneously in everyday and mythic dimensions and, to my mind, it's when the story gathers mythic momentum that his production (to which I took a while to surrender) really flies.
Anderson starts off as a slyly witty Blanche, her honeyed Southern drawl a perfect vehicle for barbed tactical tactlessness and she seems to have the upper hand in her electrically risky relationship with Ben Foster's hirsute, sweaty, exhibitionistically macho Stanley.
But then, as her lies and delusions catch up with her, she plunges right into the distraught nervous system of Blanche's disintegration. There are indelible images of this reversal of power.
When Stanley is on top her, passed out on the bed, he scrabbles furiously though the multiple layers of skirt in her pink princess-dress like a dog digging for a bone and he gazes into her face like Iago contemplating the dead Othello.
There is excellent support from Corey Johnson as Mitch and from Vanessa Kirby as Stella who lets you see that her character is partly turned on by marital violence and is grievously torn between loyalty to husband and sister.
Stanley's cruelty to Blanche is horribly crystallised by the fact that in this production he offers to return her precious Chinese lantern by contemptuously upending the pedal bin in which it has been dumped and dirtily desecrated.
Author: Paul Taylor
“Benedict Andrews’s version steams off the stage with pain, excitement and clamour.”
An award winning performance by Gillian Anderson as Blanche du Bois in the critically acclaimed version of A Streetcar Named Desire, the Tennessee Williams masterpiece
As Blanche’s fragile world crumbles, she turns to her sister Stella for solace – but her downward spiral brings her face to face with the brutal, unforgiving Stanley Kowalski…
Fresh from an award-winning performance at the Young Vic in London, Gillian Anderson reprises her role of Blanche DuBois in this critically acclaimed version of A Streetcar Named Desire at the newly opened St Ann’s Warehouse, New York.
This daring and imaginative staging of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece by visionary director Benedict Andrews, who won a Critics’ Circle Award for his production of Three Sisters, became the fastest-selling in the Young Vic’s history.
More information can be found here. New York Times gives stellar review.
Bruno Wang Productions has supported both productions; Mr Wang says: “This is a compelling theatrical event. Truly unmissable.”
Adds Gillian Anderson: “As a company, we are utterly thrilled to be transferring this extraordinary play to New York City. It is a uniquely imagined production and St Ann's is the perfect place to stage it.”
And David Lan, Artistic Director of the Young Vic confirms: “The Young Vic is extremely proud to be sharing Benedict’s breakthrough production with New York audiences.”