In Benedict Andrews’ A Streetcar Named Desire, filmed for cinema, Gillian Anderson delivers a lustrous Blanche DuBois.

By Peter Craven.

Benedict Andrews’ big screen A Streetcar Named Desire.

From left: Steve (Branwell Donaghey), Stanley Kowalski (Ben Foster), Stella Kowalski (Vanessa Kirby) and Pablo (Troy Glasgow).

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is looking more and more like the unavoidable classic play of the modern era. Just nine months ago I saw Sigrid Thornton play Blanche DuBois, Tennessee’s torn Southern belle, in a triumph of madness and moodiness for Kate Cherry’s Black Swan State Theatre Company in Perth. Now we have Gillian Anderson, the dazzling ice queen of that crime masterpiece in the making, The Fall, who went from The X-Files to the marvellous Andrew Davies’ Bleak House, and who acted like a goddess for Terence Davies in his film of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. For the Young Vic’s National Theatre Live production, filmed for cinema and screened around the country this month, Anderson takes on the role Vivien Leigh made famous in the Elia Kazan film of more than 60 years ago, itself a few short years after Jessica Tandy (Miss Daisy in her Indian summer) created the role on the New York stage.

Yes, Blanche is looking like the Hamlet – the signature tune and rite of passage – for any ambitious actress. If we were in any doubt, there was Cate Blanchett’s Oscar for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, which is a low-rent, Classics Illustrated version of Streetcar, though widely admired. There’s little doubt that the film and Blanchett’s sumptuous role would never have been dreamt up by Allen if it had not been for the famous Sydney Theatre Company production of Streetcar, directed by the great Liv Ullmann. Blanchett presented a dazzlingly variegated Blanche – too much so, I thought: sometimes she seemed like the ghost of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. It was the most highly regarded Blanche in the longest time. Perhaps it’s a pity that Ullmann, the collaborator of Tennessee Williams’ peer Ingmar Bergman, and who had lived with the great Swedish director and starred in his later films, had not put our Cate’s Blanche on screen rather than the Oscar having to be given to this late-period Allen film.

One of the striking things about the Ullmann/Blanchett Streetcar was that it had in Joel Edgerton a Stanley in minor key. Edgerton gave an intelligent, strong performance and he was buffed to look appropriately fit, but it was not a performance that was remotely meant to compete with Blanchett’s.

And yet half the point of Streetcar is precisely the fact that Stanley, every bit as much as Blanche, is a towering role of our theatre. Is it simply that Marlon Brando is such an impossible ghost to contend with? And yet it’s a fact of film history that Brando drove Vivien Leigh to give the performance of her life precisely because his Stanley testified, at the very height of his early power, that he was an actor of genius with a sweeping brutality and magnetism.

Blanche without a Stanley to match her is like Lady Macbeth without the thane, Cleopatra without her Antony, Martha without George. And yet that’s what we see: Edgerton’s minor-key Stanley was in fact the strongest we’ve seen in the last stretch.

And so it is with this new fascinating production of A Streetcar Named Desire from London’s Young Vic. It is directed by Benedict Andrews, the Australian who directed Blanchett in The War of the Roses as both Richard II and Lady Anne, and more recently in Genet’s The Maids with Isabelle Huppert (herself another recent onstage Blanche). Andrews does the play with an engrossing imaginative licence and visual splendour, throwing in rock music, hurling the ’40s dialogue into a quasi-contemporary, quasi-postmodern setting, and spinning a long vertical set that mimes the whole Stella/Stanley apartment and its environs around the circular space. And he has the great Gillian Anderson, vamping and grand in the first half – if a little too much on one note, a little too insistent on the Southern musculature and music of the role – before in the second half achieving the grandeur of her desperation as Blanche collapses into mayhem and desolation. It’s a performance by an actress of the first rank that everyone should see, but her Stanley, Ben Foster, although he gives a creditable enough performance according to his conception, gives us an unattractive troll of a man, and a character actor getting his moment of clamour and glory. 

On the other hand, the production as a whole has a restless, nearly operatic magic, full of dazzling shifts of perspective that testify to Andrews’ mastery of the stage. It also has a superb Stella in Vanessa Kirby and as Mitch, the mate who tries to court Blanche, Corey Johnson is as good as anybody who has ever played the role, including Karl Malden.

Streetcar can run the risk, as do Hamlet and The Importance of Being Earnest, of seeming like a perpetual quotation of itself, from the outset when Blanche mutters about “Elysian (A lesion, she always says) Fields” right up to the “kindness of strangers”. It needs to be done – ideally – with an electrical fire and speed that burns away mannerism and memories as if Blanche and Stanley were improvising the lines from some dark well of their opposite souls, as their deeply sexual struggle becomes first a pas de deux, and then, as it encompasses something like rape and the destruction of personalities, a dance of death.

It is an internecine struggle, a fight to the finish no one really survives, and the play has a tremendous exhilaration, as well as a sense of the dreadful, as all sorts of nameless, precious things, illusions by which life is lived, are trampled into the dust of an impoverished living-room floor.

Andrews refuses to be seduced by the heroical history of the play and he disdains any attempt to reproduce the slatternly period flavour of immediate postwar America, with its sizzle and steam and picturesqueness. Instead he gives us a world where white lights jump in half darkness, and where the old story of guys in singlets gives place to a world in which women are forever getting in and out of underpants and bike shorts and where there is a generalised spectacularism of undress.

This works suggestively and interestingly, and the camera is used in this transcript from stage to screen with a consistent intelligence and a real ability to lure and conjure and surprise. The production has a lustrous night-lit quality that makes it both dreamlike and domestically intimate in a contemporary way that retains its own ambiguity: like a dreamscape that remembers an old-time world of poker games and radios, and yet does so with the kind of spiralling sense of strangeness that the Russian Formalists thought was the hallmark of art.

Andrews’ production is consistently captivating. This is as far-out and inventive a reconfiguring of Streetcar as you’re ever likely to see, although its always already cinematic concertinaing of tricks would be better seen on stage. For all its skill, the way it establishes its own idiom with great authority doesn’t entirely ward off longueurs.

Like Kate Cherry’s production in Perth, Andrews uses a very full text, though he seems a greater master of visual dynamics than he is a director of actors. With its sudden guitar solos and throbbing quotations of rock music, this production has an operatic, almost Zeffirellian logic – for all the Ikea whiteness of the mise en scène – without the binding economy of opera as a dramatic and musical form.

Gillian Anderson as Blanche is initially, with a flamboyant lustre, a kind of walking parody of all foolish Southern things. The mature beauty is flaunted like a token of decay and the voice is richly articulated like a mask on top of emotion that peeps through perhaps a shade more ambivalently than it should.

As the tension mounts and Stanley shows his colours as her nemesis, she snaps like the incarnation of a doll that no longer knows how to come alive. The lipstick goes awry to create a clown’s face, tragic in its misdirection, and the performance becomes much less an impersonation and more a reckless and powerful inhabitation of a woman on the edge.

Ben Foster is fine in his own terms (shrewd, calculating, sometimes on a human scale, sometimes ugly and nightmarish), but it is nothing like an equal match.

When Tennessee Williams first met the 22-year-old Brando, the actor fixed his lights and blocked drains. “The Bird” said Brando gave the impression “he had spent his entire antecedent life repairing drains”. And he adored the glossy young-bull quality of Brando, which he saw as sexually ambivalent.

Would to God that someone doing this play would have the courage to cast one of our young bulls as Stanley. Don’t get me wrong: if I had the world to choose from any time in the past 15 years I would rather have seen Mark Ruffalo, the greatest American actor of his generation, as Stanley, or a man born for the role, Russell Crowe. But failing that I would much rather see a Chris Hemsworth or a Taylor Kitsch – a young Thor, someone who could play a GI or a footballer, rather than an intelligent weed such as Ben Foster. The problem, scarcely admitted, is that we find Stanley unspeakable, and therefore appear unwilling to give him the histrionic (and physical) intensity he requires, and this, alas, unbalances the play.

Fortunately, the two supporting roles in this Streetcar are done with unusual detail and clarity. Vanessa Kirby is utterly individual and credible as Stella, no one’s ingenue, a young woman, struggling and subtle and alive to every snake in every basket. And Corey Johnson’s Mitch provides the authority and emotional intelligence this bluff role almost never has.

So see this Streetcar for Anderson and Andrews, and for the capaciousness of its box of tricks, but you might want to work on your own dream team for Stanley.

Arts diary

• VISUAL ART  Ben Quilty
Bendigo Art Gallery, until March 1, 2015

• THEATRE  I’ll Eat You Last
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until December 20

• MUSEUM  Think Ahead, Future science and technology exhibition

Scienceworks, Melbourne, until December 31

• THEATRE  The Sydney Hills Shakespeare
in the Park

Bella Vista Farm, Sydney, until December 30

Last chance

• CINEMA  Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival 

GOMA, Brisbane, ends tomorrow

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 13, 2014 as "Stella production".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.