THEATRE REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic

directed by Benedict Andrews

runs until 19 September

Getting tickets to this much-awaited production was a stressful event; luckily, every single minute of frantic refreshing and online queueing was more than repaid by every second of this brilliant version of Tennessee Williams’s twentieth century masterpiece.

The last time I saw Benedict Andrews’s work was also at the Young Vic, where he adapted Chekhov’s Three Sisters with innovation and guts. This performance is no different, with bold staging that brings the play alive for new audiences and for those who, like myself, know the text so familiarly. Andrews has a reputation for what some may call iconoclasm, and others would call the fierce reinvigoration of classic works. Hence his modern Streetcar, which abandons its 1940s setting and therefore the clash of modernity and the ‘Southern Belle’ era that permeates the work in its original state. Yet in doing so it shows that the play is about so much more than a clash of cultures: it is about the power struggles that come with knowledge, sex, reputation and ownership; about illusion and self-delusion; and about the terror of ageing and death that in the end sacrifices the vitality of life.

'A Streetcar Named Desire' at the Young Vic
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ at the Young Vic

In the lead of Blanche DuBois, star attraction Gillian Anderson does not disappoint. Her performance is simply wonderful, imbuing every note of her Southern drawl with tragic humour, heart-wrenching yearning and fearful desperation; under the direction of Andrews and his perfect pacing, she at times rushes around the stage with frenetic energy, and at others takes her time to draw every emotion with shatteringly beautiful depth. Her final circuit around the space is a magical moment that makes the whole theatre hold its breath. Opposite her, Ben Foster is a powerful Stanley whose violence is disturbing yet thrilling, and scenes between the two crackle with tension and explode with fiery rage.

Yet one of the best things about this production is that it is not a two-card trick. I’ve often found Stella to be presented as more of an instrument to the plot that an asset to the play, but Vanessa Kirby, who previously wowed at the Young Vic as Masha in Andrews’ Three Sisters, makes the part rounded and fascinating; she plays the role with courageous boldness – impetuously loving to her sister, eloquent and engaging, and unmistakeably thrilled and aroused by her husband’s violent streak (that “brutal desire” that Williams writes of).

The spinning stage (designed by Magda Willi) could have been a disastrous choice had it obscured the great work of the cast, but the ability to see all rooms of the apartment and its exterior at once heightens the poignancy of the piece and its dramatic resonance: we see Blanche calmly bathing while her life begins to fall apart in the next room; we see Stella and Stanley’s violent love-making while Blanche watches horrified at the door; and we see the apparently heartless obliviousness of the men as the women prepare for Blanche’s final departure. Each scene is crafted meticulously to give us a full bird’s-eye-view, fly-on-the-wall experience. The constantly revolving, cage-like set never lets us believe that this tangled family are on solid ground, and amplifies the dizzying nature of Blanche’s fears and fantasies.

This is up there with my favourite theatrical events of the year – a triumph not just for Andrews in another successful restaging; not just for Anderson, whose performance is shatteringly good; but for the whole production, which is a forceful, disturbing and truly brilliant Streetcar.

http://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/a-streetcar-named-desire

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