The Theatreguide.London Review
Streetcar Named Desire
Young Vic Theatre Summer 2014
One of the two or three greatest plays in the American repertoire here receives a production that is generally just adequate, too rarely more and too frequently less.
Director Benedict Andrews makes clear in programme notes that he understands that Tennessee Williams's drama is at the same time realistic, depicting the emotional and mental collapse of a woman at the end of her tether; metaphoric, with a Chekhovian ambivalence about the displacement of a beautiful but enervated past by a brutal but vital future; and mythic, in the clash between the larger-than-life Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski, with all they consciously and unconsciously represent.
But far too little of this Young Vic production actually brings any of these levels theatrically alive, and such a broad disappointment must be blamed on the director.
Gillian Anderson is an actress of proven talent, intelligence and range, but she does not seem to have been led very far into an understanding of Blanche. She never captures the emotional and psychic exhaustion so central to the character, and is slow in finding and conveying Blanche's desperation.
With some of the American drama's greatest speeches to deliver – fully the American equivalents of 'To be or not to be' – Anderson repeatedly finds neither the poetry or much meaning in them.
She races at full speed through Blanche's aria climaxing in 'Don't hang back with the brutes' and, later, through the lacerating account of Blanche's marriage and her betrayal of her husband, never pausing or even slowing down to let the character experience the emotional journey implicit in her words.
The effect is like an early rehearsal in which the actress is just cementing the words in her memory but hasn't begun to explore their music or meaning.
With too little sense of her fragility or desperation, Blanche is in danger of becoming just an interfering sister-in-law, and sympathy that should be hers (or balanced between them) goes to Ben Foster's Stanley.
Underplaying Stanley's crudeness and sexuality, Foster makes him an amiable enough ordinary guy just trying to get along until he sees the threat to his marriage and fights back. There's no clash of titans here, just a displaced EastEnders episode with Stanley coming out looking better.
Stella is a somewhat thankless role for any actress, more the prize being fought for than a developed character, and Vanessa Kirby can do little with her beyond playing her more as a teenager than a married woman and more Jersey Shore than Old South.
Corey Johnson does capture the unforced pathos and quiet dignity of Mitch, one of nature's instinctive gentlemen and designated losers.
The play is performed in the round on a revolving set designed almost perversely by Magda Willi so that, despite its having no walls, it contrives to make some part of the action invisible to some part of the audience at all times.
Everyone in the theatre has several opportunities to miss key events in the play as the set revolves to put something in their sightlines at just the wrong moments.
The set is also peculiarly clean, white and clearly brand new, looking more like an Ikea showroom than a lived-in downmarket New Orleans apartment, so you may wonder what it is about it that so shocks Blanche.
(The design has also been modernised, inconsistently and pointlessly, so that a cordless phone and pop-top Diet Coke cans sit uncomfortably with references to Stanley being a recent World War Two veteran.)
There is no such thing as a totally failed production of Hamlet, or Private Lives, or Death Of A Salesman, or Streetcar. The plays are just too good.
Some of Streetcar's power comes through in this production, but director, designer and cast do far too little to bring out the best in Tennessee Williams's vision, and that is a disappointment.
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