Sometimes a production comes along that makes you rethink your preconceptions of a classic play, and in the case of Benedict Andrews’ A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, there is a considerable rethinking of approach and interpretation. This is as fresh a production as I could imagine; and every actor is giving a stellar performance. Blanche, compellingly played by Gillian Anderson, is a woman who has spent years hiding the truth from others and herself, and she comes across in this interpretation as a much less overtly fragile person than she is usually portrayed to be. But from the beginning, it is clear that she is nearing the end of her tether and that this really is a last attempt to stave off her fate and find some sort of peace and happiness. Her sexuality, her passions, her desires are one of the things this play is about; and they are to the fore in this production.
The auditorium has been reconfigured so that the audience is sitting totally in the round; and the lozenge stage in the centre, with its contemporary furniture and fixings, begins to revolve as soon as Blanche takes her first drink. For a friend of mine, Rena Fogel, the set had to revolve as a visual metaphor for Blanche’s descent. As Blanche destabilizes and spirals downwards, so does what you are seeing – the revolving stage creates its own unease. You are not seeing everything, you are straining to see what is missing, what is evolving. The disadvantage is that some of the time you really do miss important lines, facial expressions. The concept, however, is very strong and the visual metaphor of the disorienting revolve works for this play.
We watch Blanche fiercely, desperately trying to fight off her situation, while Stanley, powerfully played by Ben Foster, is much more of a brute than usual, and as totally compelling. Even as you dislike him, even when he is at his most troublingly angry, you can understand why Stella has married him. Both Vanessa Kirby‘s Stella and Corey Johnson’s Mitch are also presented with more strength of purpose than usual and are clear pendants to Stanley and Blanche respectively. Their performances, too, are nuanced and staggeringly believable.
Throughout the evening there is not a moment that does not seem to be a sincere and intelligent interpretation of the text rather than some sort of gimmicky imposition by the director. Again and again, lines make unexpected sense, readings make you rethink where you are. The jazzy music is atmospheric. Above all, you come away wanting to see the play again, read the text, get to know it better; because Benedict Andrews makes it so clear that you are in the presence of a classic. The carnal nature of the attractions and repulsions among the characters, is powerfully presented; and Blanche, preening, wearing stilettos that seem perilously too high for her, contemptuous, ostentatious, becomes a great tragic presence, reaching for a compromise that could save her and thwarted by circumstances and Stanley.
Despite its myriad of intelligent moments and committed actors, the play ultimately has to belong to Blanche Dubois and Gillian Anderson inhabits the roles in an impressive feat of acting. She does not arrive mad – she is plausible enough in her lies, in her ability to portray for people the character she wants them to think she is. We watch her slowly disintegrate, have moments of return, portray wit and intelligence and sensitivity at times, terrible snobbery and malice at others. But when she tells the story of her youthful marriage and its tragic ending, or in the climactic confrontation near the end with Stanley, her power is hypnotic and strong and every aspect of her struggle is clear. Finally there is the heartbreaking ending as she is led off to the asylum.
This is a performance, a production and a play to savour. There is always another way to interpret a great play; but this interpretation will be a benchmark and live in the memory for a long time to come.
A Streetcar Named Desire will be broadcast live to cinemas in the UK and elsewhere on Tuesday, 16 September 2014.