Heroic bravado of a paper lantern



JUST chillin’: Gillian Anderson is Blanche du Bois. Photograph courtesy

THE ROLE OF Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire has, since 1947 when Tennessee Williams first penned it, become iconic as a reflection of the tawdry vulnerability and bravado of a character losing her moorings, while she pretends to be fine. It is also revered as a significant professional challenge to a performer. Vivien Leigh encapsulated the role in 1951, unforgettably. Arguably, Gillian Anderson’s interpretation is no less raw, haunting, sophisticated and profoundly vulnerable. Youtube watchers under lockdown are immensely privileged to be able to watch this 2014 production for the Young Vic for free until Wednesday May 27, as part of the National Theatre Live at Home’s initiative to keep the theatre’s soul alive.

Checking in at a whopping length of just under three hours, the work is utterly seamless. The scene changes are manifest with roaring electric guitar and eerie shifts in light, bringing on stage hands to clean up the mess, and continue. The effect of this is potent and breaks the work without breaking it, enabling you to remember that this is a staged work rich with levels of reality. It’s like the abrupt change in musical theme – if you recall the moment in Alan Bleasdale’s series Jake’s Progress involving the David Ross character: he’s rudely made, unsophisticated, violent. Every time there is a sequence where he appears, his gravelly and screechy music theme dominates.

And then, there is the set. It’s a very complex piece of machinery, involving an outdoor steel staircase and non-existent interior walls, and gauze curtaining to interrupt the space. Cast members have just the curtained bathtub to do major costume changes. In a sense, you, sitting in your bed at home, are in a better position than much of the live audience, who you can sometimes see craning their necks. As the set turns, the drunkenness of the narrative is evoked – something resonant with Chen Nakar’s set in the Sylvaine Strike production of Dop – but the goings-on on stage reach in and out of visibility, as it turns, for the audience.

The lines of this work are drawn with impeccable and oft cruel clarity, casting a damaged woman into the spotlight, from which she will cringe, all the time. Du Bois is the school teacher-older sister of Stella Kawalski (Vanessa Kirby) married to Stan (Ben Foster), a direct and simple guy with a short fuse and a significant lack of empathy. She arrives bearing mystery, love letters and news of big losses, to stay in their tiny tenement apartment for an undisclosed time. And it’s a time which, complete with whatever liquor is to be found in the house, sees her unravelled in her history, her values, her sense of where she fits in. As you watch this work, you may think back to moments in F Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby or the 1985 Miranda Richardson film Dance with a Stranger, which pushes a simple girl off a sharp edge.

This extraordinary interpretation of the work feels curiously timeless. If you want to pin the work in the 1950s, the cordless phone shrieks anachronism. And the costume designs teeter sexily between the elegance of the 1950s and fashions that would be quite acceptable in the 2020s. That said, the give and take between the sisters is absolutely goose-bump inducing in its electricity, even though Kirby’s accent sometimes reaches too lightly into the deep American southern drawl emblematic of the context, and sounds Australian.

The text is clustered with language gems, raw in how they tear through platitudes and social convention, ripped as they are with homophobic and xenophobic allusions. Anderson’s portrayal of Du Bois is empathetic but not gentle, harsh but not judgemental and she makes an astonishingly credible drunk. A Streetcar Named Desire is everything you may have remembered from its black and white silver screen counterpart of the 1950s, but there are no contexts barred in this sexually explicit, gutsy and politically inappropriate piece of theatre magnificence. You may need debriefing time after the curtain comes down.

  • A Streetcar Named Desire is written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Benedict Andrews for the Young Vic, in 2014. It is performed by Gillian Anderson, Clare Burt, Lachele Carl, Branwell Donaghey, Otto Farrant, Ben Foster, Nicholas Gecks, Troy Glasgow, Stephanie Jacob, Corey Johnson, Vanessa Kirby and Claire Prempeh. Produced and presented by the National Theatre Live at Home, it features creative input by Magda Willi (set), Victoria Behr (costumes), Jon Clark (lighting), Paul Arditti (sound), Alex Baranowski (music), Maggie Lunn, Camilla Evans and Jim Carnahan (casting), Richard Ryder (voice), Bret Yount (fight choreography) and Rick Lipton (dialect coach). It broadcasts for free until May 26 via the National Theatre’s youtube channel.

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