After its superb production of A View From A Bridge, the Young Vic is clearly on a roll as its current production, Tennessee William’s classic Pulitzer prize-winning play A Streetcar Named Desire, continues to play to sold out houses. After failing to get to the Donmar’s much-praised production in 2009, I was very much looking forward to my first Streetcar (in no small part due to Gillian Anderson’s involvement) and I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
The play centres on the lives of three characters, sisters Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski and Stella’s husband Stanley, after Blanche arrives for a visit a decade after her sister last saw her. Over the course of the evening the audience learns more about Blanche’s past and struggles and sees how each of their desires impacts on those around them.
The design of the production seems to have divided opinion but I loved it. Staged in the round, on a rectangular space, dressed as the small New Orleans apartment of the Kowalskis, the set slowly begins to rotate once Blanche takes her first secret drink and only briefly stops during the play. For me this was a brilliant staging choice by Magda Willi and director Benedict Andrews (whose recent work includes the brilliant Three Sisters at the Young Vic in 2012). As an audience member you can’t help but feel as if you are intruding on the innermost lives of the characters and there is a wonderfully effective voyeuristic quality too – some scenes you see clearly in front of you, but others you glimpse through a window or bathroom door, until your perspective shifts with the stage. There are moments when characters overhear/see things they perhaps shouldn’t and it is the same feeling for the audience. The timing of this movement is perfect, mirroring Blanche’s descent into helplessness, occasionally speeding up to match the pace of a scene, before stopping at one moment, which felt abrupt but absolutely right for the scene.
This production has also brought the play in to a more modern setting but despite this change in period, the apartment of Stella and Stanley feels very real. Unlike the childhood the sisters had, the Kowalskis are not wealthy and are making do with a simple two rooms, drawing a curtain across when extra privacy is needed (although it’s sheer quality means that nothing is really hidden in these rooms). It’s also fantastic that for the most part the actors remain on the stage, requiring quick changes in the confines of a curtained bath tub. This all adds to the pace and voyeuristic nature of the production.
Its main power is driven by the acting of the three leads. Ben Foster is very strong as Stanley – a man you quite like until his first violent outburst shifts your perspective of him. As a former soldier, you sense all the time that his military instinct to react in the moment, often with frightening results, is lingering just under the surface. He does however clearly love his wife and feels threatened by Blanche’s presence and you are constantly waiting for them to erupt at one another, leaving Stella caught in the crossfire.
Vanessa Kirby is one of my favourite young actresses (doing fantastic work in the Young Vic’s Three Sisters and the National’s recent Edward II to name just two) and she is wonderful as Stella. The conflicted emotions she feels when faced with supporting her sister and agreeing with her husband are conveyed brilliantly and its with unease that you watch her return to a man, who although loves her, is at risk of lashing out like an animal. She also has a very believable relationship with Gillian Anderson’s Blanche (no doubt helped by the actresses’ friendship, which began when they starred opposite each other in Great Expectations for the BBC). Corey Johnson is also very good as Mitch, Stanley’s friend who becomes entranced by Blanche. For a brief moment, he gives both Blanche and the audience hope that perhaps she may finally have a better future and some of his scenes with Gillian Anderson were particular highlights for me.
The play focuses however on Blanche’s journey and spiral into desperation and Gillian Anderson does a stunning job bringing this to life so vividly. Beginning with a haughty attitude of someone used to the finer things in life, we slowly watch as her facade begins to slip and we learn that her life has been somewhat different from the one her sister has assumed.
Gillian has to encompass so many emotions as Blanche in order to make her a fully rounded character and she does this superbly. Her Blanche is a woman who can turn in one scene from a giggly young, somewhat naive woman, to a sexy, sensual seductress, to someone who is clearly deeply troubled and desperately trying to keep her world together. I loved the touch that no matter the circumstance, including just getting out of a bath, Gillian’s Blanche is always in a pair of killer heels – its part of her image, which she is determined to cling to, even as it falls away. I have always thought Gillian was a superb actress (yes I’m an X-Files fan, so what) and over the years she has only become more impressive in her various roles. Here she draws the audience in so much to Blanche’s disintegration that by the end of the production I certainly felt exhausted and incredibly moved after having watched such a powerful and emotional performance.
For me one of the thrills of live theatre is seeing a production that is so powerful that by its end you know it’ll always stay with you. As the lights went out at the end of this production I had no doubt this was one of those productions. Its rare, powerful emotion, which demands so much from its cast was a privilege to watch and I have to admit, if I can acquire another ticket before the end of the run I’ll gladly experience it all over again.
A Streetcar Named Desire continues its run at the Young Vic until 19th September 2014. All performances are sold out (with the exception of the charity gala performance costing £150). However, some standing tickets may still be available from the box office and a day seat lottery takes place each day. The production will also be screened via NT Live in cinemas on 16 September 2014. For more information visit the Young Vic’s website here