A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic, review: Gillian Anderson gives shatteringly powerful performance

Actress plunges right into the distraught nervous system of Blanche DuBois' disintegration

Paul Taylor
Tuesday 29 July 2014 13:34
Gillian Anderson stars as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire
Gillian Anderson stars as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire

You can say what you like about this production, but it's definitely not underwrought. No, sir. We're in New Orleans though not as we have known it in previous stagings of Tennessee Williams's masterpiece.

Gone are the “the quaintly ornamented gables” and the “lyricism” that's redolent of decay.

The audience sit in a great circular sweep round Magda Willi's revolving set which presents the Kowalskis' home as a clinical, cramped, white modern apartment locked in an oblong cage-like structure that professedly invokes the paintings of Francis Bacon.

The design also made me think of the architect Le Corbusier. He said that a house was “a machine for living in”. Here the flat looks like a machine for driving one another violently insane in. It's figuratively open-plan; there's no hiding place.

As the resolve goes on its slow, fateful turn, we see everything: Blanche with her head down the loo; Stanley, vicious-drunk, dunked in the bath. The clothes are contemporary designer-label.

The music that both underscores the drama and erupts in the deliberately mood-breaking scene changes comes from the likes of Chris Izaak (why no Rufus Wainwright who, to my mind, is most Williams-like genius now operating?).

Director Benedict Andrews's aim is to jolt the audience out of any cosy, complacent sense of familiarity with this playwright's world and to pay him the tribute of radical renewal that we have no difficulty with accepting in revivals of Shakespeare.

At the end of the end of the three-and-half hour duration, Gillian Anderson's shatteringly powerful and persuasive Blanche, mad now and being hoodwinked to asylum, makes an unhurried, stately progress round the perimeter of the space on the arm of the doctor, and she gazes upwards with a fragile smile, as if graciously acknowledging the wonder and the gallantry of the universe.

It's a sheerly haunting and properly protracted sequence that seems to take us back to the youthful beauty and poetry in the character's soul before causing her gay husband's suicide sent her on a drunken downward spiral.

Andrews says in the programme that the play moves simultaneously in everyday and mythic dimensions and, to my mind, it's when the story gathers mythic momentum that his production (to which I took a while to surrender) really flies.

Anderson starts off as a slyly witty Blanche, her honeyed Southern drawl a perfect vehicle for barbed tactical tactlessness and she seems to have the upper hand in her electrically risky relationship with Ben Foster's hirsute, sweaty, exhibitionistically macho Stanley.

But then, as her lies and delusions catch up with her, she plunges right into the distraught nervous system of Blanche's disintegration. There are indelible images of this reversal of power.

When Stanley is on top her, passed out on the bed, he scrabbles furiously though the multiple layers of skirt in her pink princess-dress like a dog digging for a bone and he gazes into her face like Iago contemplating the dead Othello.

There is excellent support from Corey Johnson as Mitch and from Vanessa Kirby as Stella who lets you see that her character is partly turned on by marital violence and is grievously torn between loyalty to husband and sister.

Stanley's cruelty to Blanche is horribly crystallised by the fact that in this production he offers to return her precious Chinese lantern by contemptuously upending the pedal bin in which it has been dumped and dirtily desecrated.

To 19 Sept; 020 7922 2922 – the production will be screened by NT Live on 16 September

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments