Dozens of London’s National Theatre cream-of-the-crop productions have made their way onto Australian cinemas in recent years. Australian former Sydney Theatre Company director Benedict Andrews’ modern interpretation of the iconic Tennessee Williams play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is a sight to behold, perhaps even more so up close and personal through the HD lens of a cinema screen.
The Young Vic stage is minimalistic; a rotating scaffold of an open-plan apartment and stairs that seemingly lead to nowhere. The world outside of the unit is invisible, and deliberately so, to keep the attentive audience stuck inside the claustrophobic mess that is Streetcar. Theatregoers surrounded the stage, intimate rows of indoor, amphitheatre-like layers engulfing the stage from every angle. The set was completely exposed, fittingly, as this world’s exhausted heroine Blanche DuBois is too about to be exposed for all to see.
Adelaide-bred Andrews has given us an unadulterated x-ray view into the intimate and brutal world of Blanche DuBois and the newlywed Kowalski’s. Despite the soft blue and white hues, Andrews’ New Orleans is still as raw and rough as the original play suggests, with the sweaty and sleazy state of the apartment flanked by colourful domestic rows and late-night bowling booze-ups.
The infamous trio is brought to life with very, very black humour from the three well-cast leads. Gillian Anderson (The X-Files, Hannibal) is way out of her Dana Scully comfort zone and perhaps her intensity and bleak frivolity is in part her revelling in the grown-up freedom. DuBois is a mean feat for any female actor regardless of experience, but when the opportunity arises, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play one of history’s most unforgettable, self-destructive literary divas. As broken Blanche, Anderson is textbook.
Throughout the first-half of the play, the jaded belle schtick is dangerously close to a caricature, with her tottering walks and grating high-pitched Southern sing-song. However, as the audience slowly eases into the world, her overbearingness becomes subdued and complex.
She is both melodramatic and melancholic, an unstable, molotov cocktail of contradictions in high heels. The ultimate tragedy of Blanche DuBois is never lost amongst her materialism and idiosyncrasies however, with Anderson managing to keep just enough “mental illness” visible in her decline to warrant full-blown sympathy rather than pity by the play’s end.
Stella, on the other hand, is a little less of a shrinking violet than one would hope for. Vanessa Kirby (About Time, The Hour) spends much of the play’s first half writhing around on the marital bed in debaucherous denim like a dog on heat, pining for the affections of her brute of a husband. To speak plainly, Stella and Stanely’s relationship is volatile, unpredictable and abusive. You can believe a woman could be drawn to such a violent man if he showed quite a substantial amount of other qualities, but Ben Foster’s Stanley Kowalski is fairly black and white.
The Mechanic actor is the only authentic American out of the three, and so his primitive personality is fitting not only to his real Boston roots, but the setting of Streetcar. His physique also matches Williams’ original description – muscly and chiselled, like a marble Grecian bust, with coppery chest hair and steely, beady ice-blue eyes.
The predatory Pollack made famous by Marlon Brando back in 1951 is less mumbly and modulating in this interpretation, making for clearer, crisper motivation with gusto and intensity. He is a man of premeditation, and this, in turn, makes Foster’s Stanley a much more frightening presence.
His interactions with Blanche are a tantalising clash of sexuality and instability, and provides much of the edge-of-your-seat tension of the play (as expected). One of the more particularly electrifying moments for the film audience is in the iconic “Stellaaa!” scene. The camera Foster so intimately you can see every bead of sweat and spit project as he prowls the set calling like a wild animals for his “baby girl.”
The 10-odd supporting cast are solid too, particularly beefy American actor Corey Johnson as the loveable Mitch. He is a character reminiscent of Hamlet’s Horatio; a product of his circumstances and his company, but the most decent and kind-heart of men among them. Mitch is understandably intrigued by Blanche – her beauty, brains and class – and therefore the most sympathetic character of the lot when her colourful past is eventually revealed.
It’s an interesting viewing experience to see the immediate, live audience of The Young Vic mirroring your own reactions on the big screen. Andrew’s slick production is a collective, timeless encounter – especially considering the characters are over 60 years old – and gives a clear, new glimpse into A Streetcar Named Desire. As the cast leave in the play’s emotional climax, the audience is left to dwell in the aftermath of the world, which, like the stage, just keeps on turning…