Australian stage director Benedict Andrews certainly likes to put a new spin on the classics. Working internationally, in opera as well as theatre, he’s pitched Caligula into a sports stadium and produced Chekhov’s Three Sisters on a stage of tables that were gradually removed from around the actors, leaving the sisters stranded on a Beckettian earth mound. He spliced Shakespeare’s history plays into one epic 10-hour production, The War of the Roses, for Sydney Theatre Company, which included Cate Blanchett delivering Richard II as a monologue under a shower of gold confetti.
But with his latest venture, he is quite literally putting a new spin on things: his take on Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic is being staged in the round, and on a revolve that doesn’t stop revolving. Throw in a starry cast – the redoubtable Gillian Anderson as the fading southern belle Blanche DuBois, rising British actress Vanessa Kirby as her sister Stella and Hollywood star Ben Foster as Stella’s violent husband Stanley Kowalski – and it’s no wonder this is the most anticipated production of the London summer.
Andrews has directed Streetcar before – in Berlin in 2009, translated into German, and also with a spinning stage. Why return to it? “I love this play almost more than any other,” he explains. But it was also, well, because he was asked to: Anderson had long wanted to play Blanche, and had seen his previous British productions – surreal German drama Gross und Klein with Cate Blanchett and that exhilarating Three Sisters, both in 2012. “There was something about the immediacy and the truth in his interpretations that resonated with me,” she says.
This time, Andrews is dealing with Williams’s poetic language in its original form – in German, it was “much uglier” he concedes – while, unlike in Berlin, all the props mentioned in the text will appear on stage. But he is determined not to treat it as a museum piece. All the Streetcars he’s seen tricked out in lavish period detail have been dead, he says: less realistic than twee, bogged down in a fetishised, romantic view of 1940s New Orleans. “It makes the play genteel: nice quaint people from the past with nice quaint problems. It betrays the play – which was considered shocking at the time – they’re raw people, raw situations.”
So, out goes the usual jazz soundtrack and in comes rock by P J Harvey and Swans; out go vintage frocks and in come modern designer labels; out go period wallpapered walls, and in comes a cage-like structure reminiscent of Francis Bacon paintings ….
“Whenever we started to build realistic sets, we’d destroy them,” says Andrews, who frequently works with a designer from the off – in this case Magda Willi – to find the concept for a production. “The play is written on this borderline between the real and illusion: the fundamentals of theatre. The mythic is one space of theatre, and the tangible is another – and Stanley might represent that more animal presence and Blanche the more illusory presence.”
The language itself also has this double quality. Williams’s invented “poetic realism”: a style grounded in the rough vernacular of New Orleans, but also rich with symbolism, as beautifully constructed as Blanche’s fine gold dresses. “It is the play’s astonishing genius that every moment of it [mixes] the mythic and the everyday,” enthuses Andrews. “So [in the opening scene] Stanley has meat in a bag: he’s the caveman, the meat is his cock … but simultaneously it’s just a man bringing meat home to his wife.”
While Andrews luxuriates in Williams’s lyricism – “I’ve fallen in love with the song of it” – he also wants to bring out the violence that underpins it, “the drive of desire, writhing away under everything. From the moment Stanley and Blanche lock eyes, they lock into this destructive, sexual dance of death.”
Suffice to say, while every play needs its actors to have chemistry, Streetcar demands it more than most. Andrews was immediately sold on Anderson, but finding other cast-members took a while. “You have to have three unstable chemicals coming into contact, there just has to be a” – he snaps his fingers – “sexual kick between them, or you end up with one of these toothless-tiger productions.”
So, how is the sexual chemistry in the rehearsal room? “Sparks are flying …” he begins mischievously, “in a good way! There’s a sense of camaraderie, they’re pushing each other.”
It sounds like he pushes them, too. “He demands bold choices,” says Kirby. “I thought Stella was a grounded, earthy person, and then all these demons came up – she’s a sex-and-love addict, actually.” “You just let go, and fall into his embrace of the project,” says Anderson. “He’s a perfectionist, but he’s also a conductor – he sees it musically, he scores the drama.” Kirby played Masha in Three Sisters, and recalls the whole cast worrying that “the table thing” wasn’t going to work – but this time, she has “blind faith”. “Sometimes you have to go ‘OK, the stage is revolving, I just have to trust that …’”
Andrews has several justifications, in fact, for the turning stage. It amplifies Blanche’s inexorable downward spiral into madness and, more simply, how her whole world is set spinning, but it also invites the audience into a voyeuristic relationship: when a door tracks past, it may block your view momentarily, reminding you of your own desire to see, to snoop. “It’s a gamble,” acknowledges Andrews. “I’m sure at times it will be frustrating, but by taking that gamble you offer another way into the heart of the play, rather than assuming if we make a copy of reality that’ll get us in – that’s bullshit.”
Radical stagings of classics always anger some audience members and there’s a certain type of critic who loathes Andrews’ work, too, dismissing it as wilfully interventionist, novelty-seeking “director’s theatre”. But for others, Andrews excels in providing fresh journeys into the core of great plays.
Anderson is obviously in the fan camp: “Everything makes sense in his productions – there’s nothing gratuitous. We are bringing out the simplicity and truth of what Tennessee Williams has written. ”
Andrews, meanwhile, is thoroughly sick of “lazy” categorisations such as “director’s theatre”, suggesting that the public has moved beyond such crude divisions. “In Three Sisters, audiences were laughing and crying; they weren’t saying ‘why is Nirvana playing?’ – that’s what critics would say. Personally, I think I do very well-made productions; I’m interested in good acting and getting close to the truth of the play. I worship the writer.”
“A perceived notion of fidelity for its own sake leads to a deadly theatre,” he continues. “[But] I certainly don’t pick up a text and say ‘oh, what can I do to it?’ I pick it up because I love it. I choose a play that contains the cosmos in it, that contains strong statements about what it meant to be alive when it was written, and about what it means to be a human being in the world now.”
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is at the Young Vic 23 July to 19 Sept (youngvic.org), and broadcast to cinemas nationwide, 16 Sept (ntlive.com)
Five famous productions of ‘Streetcar’
By Sadie Hale
1951: the film
Starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, Elia Kazan’s film adaptation followed on from his successful Broadway production and used much of the same cast – though Jessica Tandy had been the original Blanche. The film won three out of a possible four Oscars in the acting categories, although – surprisingly, given how well-known his interpretation has become – Brando was the one who lost out.
1992: ‘The Simpsons’
The second episode of the fourth series of The Simpsons, entitled “A Streetcar Named Marge”, sees Marge win the part of Blanche after auditioning for a fictional musical version of the play, Oh, Streetcar! The episode contains the usual tension between Marge and Homer – a Stanley stand-in, if you will – but they reconcile eventually, of course.
2005: on Broadway
John C Reilly and Natasha Richardson were Stanley (although some argued he would have made a better Mitch) and a radiant Blanche under the gaze of young British director Edward Hall. The appearance, at Studio 54, would be Richardson’s last on Broadway before her death in a skiing accident in 2009.
2009: in the West End
Few revivals have been as critically acclaimed as this Donmar Warehouse production, directed by Rob Ashford and starring Rachel Weisz, who won stellar reviews for her emotional intensity – even if some questioned whether she was perhaps too beautiful.
2012: the ballet
Director Nancy Meckler teamed up with choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa for this remarkable fusion of dance and drama, concocted to celebrate Streetcar’s 65th anniversary. Set to a jazz-infused score by Call the Midwife composer Peter Salem, the production was a hit with both critics and public – and it is set to return to Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre in March 2015.