The kindness of strangers: Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire (NTLive)

Director Benedict Andrews needs no introduction to Sydney audiences. Over the past seven years, his productions have garnered considerable critical and popular acclaim, and not without detractors. Known for his striking theatricality as much as for his reliance upon certain stock examples of stagecraft – glass boxes, confetti falling from the ceiling, loud noises or music, bodily fluids (blood, urine, faeces, vomit, spit) being spread across the set, gratuitous nudity and/or drug-taking – it has almost become predicable as to what you’d expect to encounter in a production directed by Andrews. But in his recent production of Tennessee WilliamsA Streetcar Named Desire for London’s Young Vic, currently screening in cinemas as part of the National Theatre Live program, it is the distinct lack of these effects which makes it such an engrossing and relatively ‘straight’ interpretation of Williams’ play. This Streetcar is visceral, dangerous, strangely seductive and undeniably compelling. 

Staged in the round in the Young Vic’s Main House theatre, the first thing you notice about the set is both its scale and its lack of Benedict Andrews-ness. Set on a revolve, with a long rectangular platform containing Stella and Stanley’s house, this is a production which barely stops moving. The house is eerily symmetrical, a bare-bones construction made from a metal frame, a couple of doors, and a curtain separating the two rooms, but it never feels unfurnished or wanting for anything to make it seem more ‘real’ or substantial. Designed by Magda Willi and with costumes by Victoria Behr, the production is contemporary without being gratuitously so, and we feel like voyeurs, watching through the windows as this family inches closer to the hurricane which has been building around Blanche ever since she arrived. Watching as characters spin in and out of focus, as they are obscured by curtains, doors, fire-escapes, each other; watching as everything begins to unravel, slowly at first, and then faster and faster. Jon Clark’s lighting is rich and saturated, dense colour washes hang over each scene – thick greens, bloody reds, broiling oranges, icy blues, bruised purples, blinding whites, and there is nothing gentle about it, just harsh brash loud truths which are hidden, obscured and ultimately revealed.
Andrews’ cast is first class and belt out performances which distinguish this production from the rest of his work in Sydney in the past couple of years. As Blanche, Gillian Anderson is fragile and skittish, a faded belle more accustomed to well-cut clothes and money, who crashes to earth with the rattle of a streetcar, right on her sister and brother-in-law’s doorstep. There is something of her Miss Havisham here, the eerie beauty and haunting mystery of a woman caught up in her own stories, convinced of her own invincibility, who returns to the golden days of her youth as the play progresses, as the hurricane wreaks its havoc on the lives of the Kowalskis. As her sister Stella, Vanessa Kirby is straighter, more down to earth, and there is something tender about her scenes with a repentant Stanley. Kirby’s Stella is passionate too, as passionate as Stanley is volatile, and their relationship makes sense, dramatically and realistically; the sisterly moments Stella and Blanche share are girly but tough, shot through with a shared experience and history which runs much deeper than Blanche would care to acknowledge. Ben Foster’s Stanley is brutish and occasionally loveable, and despite his fiery temper and behaviour, we are afforded a glimpse of the man Stella loves. The cards nights Stanley holds with his friends are loud, raucous and uncouth, and he has a very physical presence in the Willi’s bare-bones-house set; a presence which threatens to explode at any moment, and when it – he – does, people get hurt. Stanley is also the one person who does not fall under Blanche’s charm, even though she seems drawn to him, flirting with him as her world unravels; Stanley is also the only one who can truly match Blanche, beat for beat, action for action, and the long scene at the end between the two of them is intensely compelling. Corey Johnson’s Mitch, the fourth character in Williams’ central quartet, is kind of the antithesis of Foster’s Stanley, just as Kirby’s Stella is that of Anderson’s Blanche; Johnson is endearing in a strangely meek kind of way, and his affection for Blanche seems real enough, if a little desperate. And perhaps there is a kind of desperation at the heart of the characters in Williams’ play – a desperation to be someone else, to leave the past behind, to want for a better future, to be a better person, to be able to live without relying upon the charity of others – and in this way it reminds me of The Glass Menagerie: the desperation and hopelessness which sits deep within Laura’s character and is amplified by Amanda’s actions in Menagerie, is not dissimilar to the emotional and psychological struggle which sits at the heart of Blanche’s character, at the core of the play. The rest of the ensemble seem somewhat superfluous, appearing and disappearing into the blackness around the revolve like dreams upon waking, some for barely more than a line or two, but they give the play – the production – a kind of hauntedness, a connection to a larger story about people, belonging, a sense of time and place, an economic and socio-cultural reality which has barely changed since Williams wrote the play in 1947.
As in many of Andrews’ other productions, music plays a key role in accompanying scenes, moods, actions. Here, the soundtrack is made up of songs by Cat Power, PJ Harvey and Jimi Hendrix, and the result is mesmerising, raw, and often brutal. Tortured guitars scream, vocals howl like cats in the alley, drums rattle like the streetcars passing outside, and the beats and rhythms are as restless as Williams’ characters. The production’s final moments are hauntingly scored by Cat Power’s ‘Troubled Waters’, and it highlights the desperate fragility contained in Blanche’s final words, “I have often depended upon the kindness of strangers.”
In the forward to the play, Arthur Miller writes that “Streetcar is a cry of pain; forgetting that is to forget the play.” Andrews’ direction (as with his choice of) underscore makes sure we don’t forget the pain, that we are never unaware of it. As in his previous productions, Andrews’ direction is robust and muscular; where his ideas might have been lost amid his myriad stock effects and stagecraft tricks, here their absence serves the production perfectly. Granted, clothes are strewn across the floor, food is thrown, plates and bottles are smashed, and Blanche might smear red lipstick across her face, but it never feels gratuitous or imposed upon the production but rather part of the world Andrews has built alongside his crew and cast. It is a raw play, a play that throws its weight around and throws punches, but never apologises for its behaviour. It is loud, brash and raucous, but seductively so. We feel like voyeurs but we can’t bring ourselves to look away. This is intensified by the presence of the film cameras, pulling us so far inside this world that we are right there in the thick of it and we cannot run away even if we wanted to.
Writing in The Stage, Heather Neill says how alongside other recent productions at the Young Vic, “these American plays, in danger of becoming comfortable classics from the viewpoint of this century, are being excavated anew and found to be raw, surprising and with as much to say to us as ever about the pain of lost dreams and misplaced desire and, in this case, the tragedy of mental fragility.” It is a long and gruelling three-and-a-half hours of pure, full-blooded theatre, theatre which seeks no compromises, theatre which is not quiet nor safe, nor does it go gentle into that good night. It is a restless, frenetic, intoxicating and fascinatingly disconcerting production, captured in all its sweaty boozy glory, and it sure as hell makes you feel every moment of Stella, Blanche and Stanley’s existence, every nerve ending on fire.
Under Andrews’ visceral direction, this Streetcar is indeed named desire.

Theatre playlist: 81. Peace in Mississippi, Earth

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