Robert Tanitch reviews A Streetcar Named Desire at Young Vic, London SE1
“I don’t want reality!” cries Blanche Dubois. “I want magic!” Blanche, the faded, frail Southern belle, created by Tennessee Williams, is one of the great 20th century female roles. She sees herself as an Alexandre Dumas heroine and I have no doubt that if Verdi were alive today he would turn her into an opera.
A Streetcar Named Desire is to the 1940s what La Dame aux Camelias was to the I840s. It is a play, which is not afraid of big emotions. It is cruel and hysterical.
Blanche (Gillian Anderson) has lost everything – inheritance, home, family, husband, reputation. She arrives in New Orleans, fleeing from a sordid past, to stay with her sister, Stella (Vanessa Kirby), and Stella’s husband, Stanley (Ben Foster). She is horrified by the squalor and brutality she finds and constantly attempts to break up the marriage. Stanley takes a terrible revenge.
The definitive Streetcar performance is the 1951 Elia Kazan film with Brando and Vivien Leigh. No actor has surpassed Brando and of all the many fine actresses who have played Blanche – Uta Hagen, Tallulah Bankhead, Arletty, Rosemary Harris, Claire Bloom, Geraldine Page, Sheila Gish, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Rachel Weiz – Vivien Leigh is the one you still remember.
Benedict Andrews’ production, thankfully, is not as radical as his production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters was at this theatre; but it is an interpretation without the usual Tennessee Williams 1940’s atmospheric trappings.
The violent production, to rock music, is driven by a cold, clinical, open-plan rectangular set. Designed by Magda Willi to be on a revolving stage, which never stops revolving, the set can be distracting. The play has also been updated unnecessarily to the present day and therefore feels like a take on Tennessee Williams, rather than the genuine article.
But if you can accept the production on its own terms, and even if you can’t, the power of Gillian Anderson’s performance is undeniable. The final scene, when she is carted off to the lunatic asylum, is particularly harrowing.
The production can be seen in cinemas live on September 16.