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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

A Streetcar Named Desire
Young Vic Theatre and National Theatre At Home   Spring 2020

When I reviewed this Young Vic production of Tennessee Williams's drama here in 2014 I had two strong reservations. This video version, made as part of the National Theatre Live series made for cinemas, shows that one of my doubts can be withdrawn.

The element that changed is Gillian Anderson's performance as Blanche Dubois. On Press Night in 2014 I felt that she simply hadn't found the character yet, and was racing through the lines with little communication of either their emotional depth or poetic beauty.

I did express the hope that her characterisation might develop and deepen with time, and this video made late in the run shows that it did.

Anderson still doesn't give me the Blanche I prefer Williams says the character is exhausted and operating on the end of her nerves, and Anderson is too strong throughout but she does offer a reading that works.

Her Blanche is a woman who has gotten by all her life on a fey Southern Belle flirtatiousness, and continues to rely on that mode even though she is getting too old for it and is more often silly or pathetic than sexy. Put another way, there are touches of Amanda in The Glass Menagerie to this Blanche, and they do convey a sad sense of the woman's desperation.

And Anderson has slowed down her originally frantic delivery of the lines to do full justice to such moments as her 'Don't hang back with the brutes' aria, the scene with the paper boy, and her account of her husband's death.

The other element that bothered me in 2014 was the combination of Magda Willi's set design and Benedict Andrews's direction.

Having chosen an in-the-round staging, a director would ordinarily keep the actors moving, even in mid-speech, so that they'd be showing their faces to everyone. But here designer Willi put a skeletal structure of the apartment on a constantly-turning revolve, and director Andrews seemed happy to plant his actors solidly in one place, relying on the revolve to do his work for him.

The result was that at every important moment of the play at least half the audience was looking at the actor's back.

The video version suggests that this was not ineptitude but a deliberate attempt to create a voyeuristic peeping-tom feel in the audience, because even with several cameras placed around and above the action, the editing repeatedly cuts to a shot in which a piece of the set passes right in front of an actor's face at just the moment we want to see it.

The production was marketed as a star vehicle for Gillian Anderson and it is directed that way as well, with Ben Foster's Stanley, Vanessa Kirby's Stella and Corey Johnson's Mitch all played very much as supporting roles, the actors never less than adequate but never allowed to draw attention away from the star.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  A Streetcar Named Desire 2020