United Kingdom National Theatre at Home – Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire: filmed live on stage at the Young Vic on 16.9.2014 and reviewed on 25.5.2020 (JPr)
Direction – Benedict Andrews
Design – Magda Willi
Costumes – Victoria Behr
Lighting – Jon Clark
Sound – Paul Arditti
Music – Alex Baranowski
Director for Screen – Nick Wickham
Blanche DuBois – Gillian Anderson
Eunice Hubbel – Clare Burt
Mexican Woman – Lachele Carl
Steve – Branwell Donaghey
Young Collector – Otto Farrant
Stanley Kowalski – Ben Foster
Doctor – Nicholas Gecks
Pablo – Troy Glasgow
Nurse – Stephanie Jacob
Harold Mitchell (Mitch) – Corey Johnson
Stella Kowalski – Vanessa Kirby
Woman – Claire Prempeh
I have indicated my ignorance of some great literature and it will not come as a surprise that this was my first ever encounter with A Streetcar Named Desire, either as a play, film, or André Previn’s opera. I am certain Streetcar can survive Benedict Andrews’s stark production and Gillian Anderson’s slightly odd, if still mesmerising, performance, but I doubt I will want to ever see the play again. Crucially there was so much laughter in the Young Vic and – overlooking its harrowing ending – I am not sure it is supposed to be perceived as a comedy.
It reminded me firstly of ’90 Degrees’ during BBC’s The Goes Wrong Show (available on BBC iPlayer) ‘a family saga of lust and betrayal set in the American Deep South … The show’s title refers to the heat in Tennessee, but a designer error means that one of the sets has been built at a literal ninety degrees to the vertical.’ With the Young Vic’s audience watching in the round, Magda Willi’s set was almost constantly slowly revolving, and my mind wandered as to what would happen if it sped up out of control? Also, although there were two doors but no walls and when Blanche was having one of her regular sojourns in the bathroom and couldn’t be got out, I wondered why the other characters didn’t just bypass the closed door? Also, Blanche DuBois means ‘white woods’ and – oh, the irony of it all! – what set there was came straight from Ikea and was basically white and made of wood.
I was also reminded when I saw the London premiere of Woody Allen’s 1978 drama Interiors where every character is fragile and everything revolves around Geraldine Page’s Eve (a Tennessee Williams-inspired character), the mother of three sisters, and the least stable of an unstable clan. I was in the back row of a National Film Theatre auditorium and the problem began when I found things funny and started laughing, and soon I heard around me how infectious laughter can be! This can probably explain why even during the – admittedly ‘harrowing ending’ I referred to above – when Blanche says in passing ‘I shall die of an unwashed grape’ it was greeted as if it was a line in a Carry On film. We should be so emotionally engaged in her mental decline that it should not be a laughing matter. Of course, there are lines that must have been there to lighten the mood, such as, when Blanche is told Stanley is Polish, she replies ‘They’re something like Irish, aren’t they? Only not so – highbrow?’. This is a line that would turn up with innumerable variants throughout Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Also, the audience sniggered indulgently whenever Blanche was caught out in a lie; whether it was about her age, drinking habits, or interest in sex.
To quote Longfellow it is ‘the common fate of all [how] into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary’. For her married sister Stella Kowalski, that will be Blanche! Stanley Kowalski is loyal to his friends and nothing must interrupt their poker game, and one moment he can be a raging, abusive drunk exhibiting PTSD or, the next, a tender, loving, husband albeit one with a strong sex drive. Stanley keeps quoting Louisiana’s ‘Napoleonic code’ saying a wife’s property belongs to her husband and he believes Stella is missing out on an inheritance that will change their life forever, though he will discover there is nothing left.
There was no sense of post-WWII New Orleans; the setting was more fitting to the ‘outline’ of a New York tenement with the Kowalski’s (ground floor) apartment and an exterior metal fire escape. Jon Clark’s lighting often plunged what we saw into semi-darkness albeit with some lurid colours – including blue, lime-green, red, and violet – when silent action often continued to the accompaniment of some songs. They were often well-chosen to comment on what we had seen, otherwise there was some raucous electronic sounds. Mostly the action took place beneath the glare of the bright, naked bulbs that will prove an anathema to Blanche who wants to live her life in the shadows because she is unwilling to admit she is getting older.
‘The Poker Night’ was Streetcar’s working title and it is a poker game that provides the most explosive moments in an awfully long evening. Four macho men are around a table in a pool of light, playing cards, and swapping insults. Blanche takes a fancy to Mitch, one of Stanley’s friends. With testosterone at maximum soon the four are on their feet yelling, and at each other throats and you totally accept what one of women says: ‘When men are drinking and playing cards, anything can happen.’ We will see Stanley beat up his pregnant wife before the other men overpower him. When Stanley recovers his senses, he is deeply remorseful. Stanley’s relentless gossiping (what people used to do before Twitter!) undermines any future Blanche and Mitch may hope for. He tells Stella that he had told Mitch how Blanche was fired from her teaching job because she became involved with a 17-year-old (underaged) student and had lived in a hotel known for prostitution. Stella erupts in anger over Stanley’s callousness, but their fight is brought to an abrupt end as she goes into labour and is rushed to hospital. Soon when left alone together Stanley rapes Blanche – leading to the most heart-rendering mental disintegration in American drama – and it is almost balletic with none of the visceral engagement of that poker game.
There are two versions of Streetcar happening simultaneously: one focussing on Gillian Anderson’s blowsy, relentlessly squawky Blanche, and the second, shining a light(!) on those whose lives she had inveigled herself into. Blanche remained a caricature throughout tottering drunkenly on her stilettos as the stage turned. Blanche believes herself to be the object of masculine desire, undulating half-naked behind a semi-transparent curtain during the poker game, but Anderson’s sex appeal was hard to discern. It was difficult to understand what the caring Mitch – the excellent Corey Johnson – ever saw in Blanche. Towards the end of Anderson’s tour de force – showing us Blanche’s mental disintegration gathering speed – unfortunately, her smeared lipstick made her look like Batman’s nemesis, Joker.
It is left to everyone – apart from Anderson – to breathe ‘real life’ into Tennessee Williams’s characters. Vanessa Kirby, as the pregnant downtrodden Stella, endures her lot stoically; though #MeToo would suggest hers is an abusive marriage, emotionally, physically, and sexually, and one that she would have been better to get herself out of. However, that was rarely an option in the late-1940s.
Best of this fine ensemble was Ben Foster’s Stanley. With the 2020 US presidential election only months away – to give Stanley contemporary reference – he was the epitome of a working-class breadwinner living in the Midwest and parts of the South who will still vote for Donald Trump because he promises to ‘Keep America Great’.
At the end the downside of this production is exposed as Blanche’s fate was not as tragic as it could(should?) be because Anderson never engendered any sympathy for the outcome which – even if you, like me, did not know the play – was totally predictable. Blanche should be a manipulator, but Benedict Andrews has her fated to lose from the first moment she appeared.
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