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LONDON – Once a sensational fireworks display of explosive sexual chemistry, class and gender politics, A Streetcar Named Desire is now so firmly embedded in the American literary canon that it long ago lost its power to shock. But Australian-born director Benedict Andrews and former X-Files star Gillian Anderson make a commendable bid to reconnect with the primal passions at the heart of this much-staged Tennessee Williams classic in their bold new London revival. The fastest-selling production in the Young Vic’s history will also be broadcast live to over 500 cinema screens worldwide on Sept. 16.
Anderson joins an illustrious roll call of stars — including Jessica Tandy, Vivien Leigh, Rachel Weisz and Cate Blanchett — who have previously played Blanche DuBois, the fading Southern Belle whose outward decorum masks a bottomless pit of emotional and sexual trauma. Arriving in the steamy French Quarter of New Orleans, Blanche finds temporary shelter with her newly pregnant sister Stella and her hot-headed husband Stanley Kowalski. But her lies, her snobbery and her delusions of grandeur eventually lead Blanche to an explosive, erotically charged confrontation with Stanley.
Bringing a muscular new kind of Method-style naturalism to the stage, A Streetcar Named Desire debuted on Broadway in 1947 with Elia Kazan directing Marlon Brando as the definitive Stanley, winning multiple awards, including a Pulitzer Prize for Williams. A London launch followed two years later with Laurence Olivier directing his wife Vivien Leigh as Blanche. Brando and Leigh then shared the screen in Kazan’s hugely successful, triple Oscar-winning 1951 film version. Since then this evergreen classic has inspired dozens of TV and stage adaptations, an opera, three ballets, a celebrated musical parody on The Simpsons, and a thinly disguised quasi-remake in Woody Allen‘s Blue Jasmine.
Andrews is a former resident director of Sydney Theater Company who has also worked extensively in Berlin and his adopted home of Iceland. His past credits with the Young Vic include an award-winning, radical remake of Chekhov’s Three Sisters in 2012, which boasted a Beckettian stage design of earth mounds and slowly disappearing tables. This kind of heavily stylized treatment has earned Andrews a reputation among some critics for gimmicky, self-indulgent “director’s theater.” But he insists his intention is to reawaken the raw emotional power of landmark plays that have been tamed and gentrified into nostalgic museum pieces.
The design concept behind this in-the-round production involves a giant metal frame marking out the claustrophobic dimensions of a two-room apartment, furnished in sparse contemporary style, that slowly revolves throughout almost the entire performance. Occasionally it stops or reverses direction, mainly when Blanche’s fragile mental health begins to crumble. A little disorienting at first, the cumulative effect of this turntable trickery eventually becomes hypnotic. Andrews has likened designer Magda Willi‘s cage-like set to a Francis Bacon canvas, though in truth it feels more like peering into one of those compact mock-up apartments inside an IKEA furniture showroom. Or possibly at the human lab rats of some voyeuristic reality TV experiment.
Anderson, now a London resident and regular face on British TV, has played just four West End roles over the last 12 years, most recently her critically lauded turn as Nora in A Doll’s House at the Donmar Warehouse in 2009. But the initial impetus for this production came from her, and she clearly relishes every ripe Southern twang and salacious innuendo of her bleach-blonde Blanche, whom she pitches somewhere between Dolly Parton and Samantha from Sex and the City. A performance within a performance, Blanche is all facade and fabrication, a straight female drag queen who both subverts and celebrates socially acceptable notions of genteel femininity.
Blanche’s nemesis Stanley is played by Ben Foster, who made his Broadway debut last year opposite Alec Baldwin in Orphans. Foster was never going to eclipse Brando in the brooding male beauty stakes, but he does radiate a convincingly animalistic sexuality, with his simian prowl and tattoo-covered Popeye arms. Considering Stanley is a short-fuse bully, wife-beater and rapist, Foster does an impressive job of making him into a vaguely sympathetic and plausibly flawed antihero.
The third corner in this bizarre love triangle is Stella, an eternal innocent so sexually addicted to Stanley that she forgives even his most violent excesses. The only non-American of the core trio, Vanessa Kirby handles the accent smoothly and makes the best of a largely thankless doormat role. Corey Johnson does something similar with Mitch, the childlike neighbor who falls for Blanche’s calculated charms until Stanley cruelly sabotages their budding romance.
Besides the revolving stage, Andrews challenges convention with fast-forward scene changes that take place in full view of the audience, typically accompanied by grinding rock numbers by the likes of PJ Harvey and Swans. Between these louder clips, he laces the drama with vintage New Orleans jazz, plus ominous drones and rumbles by composer Alex Baranowski. This musical scattershot approach feels a little indecisive, and risks falling back on cliche at times. Can anyone now hear Chris Isaak‘s “Wicked Game” without thinking of David Lynch‘s Wild At Heart?
But any flaws in this production are less the fault of Andrews than the play’s vintage. Blanche’s pained confessions about the tragic fate of her secretly gay ex-lover, or the reckless promiscuity that wrecked her teaching career, now sound more like campy monologues from a John Waters movie than the taboo-breaking bombshells they must have been in 1951, when Kazan’s screen adaptation had to be censored. Yesterday’s shock revelations become today’s commonplace conversations, and no amount of high-tech stage trickery can rewind an audience’s cultural values by six decades.
A Streetcar Named Desire remains an American classic, and Andrews rightly approaches it with gravitas and grit. But in a world where feminism, gay rights and post-modern parodies on The Simpsons are now ingrained in popular culture, the feverish netherworld that Williams depicts perhaps inevitably feels more like shrill melodrama than groundbreaking drama. Fortunately, Blanche is the saving grace here, a hugely alluring car-crash heroine in any decade. Top marks to Anderson, who gives great diva and appears to enjoy every minute of it.
Venue: Young Vic, London (runs through Sept. 19)
Cast: Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, Vanessa Kirby, Corey Johnson
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Benedict Andrews
Set designer: Magda Willi
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Costume designer: Victoria Behr
Sound designer: Jon Arditti
Music: Alex Baranowski
Presented by The Young Vic and Joshua Andrews
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