Theatre

The Young Vic’s 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire, recently rebroadcast during the Covid-19 lockdown, reminds this viewer of the work’s power but also of the test of matching the smouldering energy of Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. By Peter Craven.

Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire

Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois in the Young Vic’s 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire.
Credit: Johan Persson

You could argue no version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire can compare to the original screen version directed by Elia Kazan with Marlon Brando as Stanley and Vivien Leigh, Scarlett O’Hara and Lady Olivier rolled into one, as the fated Blanche DuBois. Despite the fact the film is in some ways bowdlerised – mitigating Stanley’s assault on Blanche – it has an absolute raw energy in flawless synchronicity with the brilliance of its art. If half the miracle is the way Brando, at the first height of his towering powers, reinvents the very grammar of modern acting, the other is the way the visceral energy of his performance seems to have pushed Leigh way beyond her natural tendency towards idealisation so that her queen-like refinements transfer in their tatters to the characterisation of Blanche in her bright desolated delusions. The effect is riveting.

Even more than Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Blanche is the signature role, the Hamlet-like mirror, in which every actress hopes to see herself in her squalor writ splendid. There has been a rash of Streetcars on the stage in recent years. The Sydney premiere of the great Liv Ullmann’s production in 2009 had a chilling coherence and at its centre there was Cate Blanchett as a Blanche who was like an anthology of possible Blanches, each of them grand and doomed, majestic and mad, but never quite adding up to a portrait of psychological disarray, intimately examined and rendered piteous. In 2014, Sigrid Thornton in Perth, although smaller scaled, was all of that, a devastating examination of ageing beauty in a cracked mirror.

Of the two Stanleys, Joel Edgerton, for Ullmann and Blanchett, was surer footed than Nathaniel Dean in Kate Cherry’s very inward and able production for Black Swan, but they were both Stanleys in a minor key, even if Edgerton had greater histrionic authority. There is a problem with Stanley that is partly attributable to Brando and partly to the way we back away from the masculinity he captured with such forceful magnetism.

It’s a problem written all over the Young Vic’s 2014 production of Streetcar, directed by Australia’s Benedict Andrews – who brought us Cate Blanchett as Richard II and Pamela Rabe as Richard III in his digest of Shakespeare’s history plays The War of the Roses in 2009. However, the primary interest of this production of A Streetcar Named Desire, apart from the whirligig and kaleidoscope of Andrews’ direction, is that Blanche is played by that never-less-than-commanding actress Gillian Anderson.

Her performance in Terence Davies’ masterpiece The House of Mirth from the Edith Wharton novel is about as good as film acting gets, and something similar could be said about her contribution to television in the intricate Irish policier The Fall. But the woman who became famous in The X-Files has always had an absolute Anglo–American virtuosity, perfectly at home in either way of accentuating the world through a manner of speaking. Her Blanche is an utterly fantasticated circus-show characterisation of Tennessee’s portrait of the fallen woman with a broken heart and a damaged mind. And it has a sort of swerving spectacular camp style that is liable to magnetise the spectator, if it does not reduce her to laughter or stoneheartedness.

The sense of Blanche as a mirror for every histrionic trick in the book is scribbled all over this very grand gesticulatory performance where the corners of poignancy have to be found beneath or inside the rather stupendous size of the characterisation. If the comment of a prominent playwright on the Blanchett–Ullmann Streetcar – that it was all a bit Scandinavian – had an element of truth, the Benedict Andrews interpretation is neo-Shakespearean: as if the very artifice of Andrews’ language, its arabesques and grace notes and ruminative bath-taking in style, the whole configuration by which you come to believe that the emotion in this shattering play was in the cadence, is taken for a whirl. And the aim seems to be to captivate and create a vivid rhetoric of its own, matching Williams point for point but full of the sorts of improvisational sidesteps associated with rock videos – bits of contemporary music are also used to telling effect, sometimes heightening the poignancy and sometimes distancing it.

The whole play, which has just finished screening free for a week on YouTube thanks to National Theatre at Home, is framed within three rooms with no walls so that the bedroom and bathroom and the space for guys smoking and playing poker and tossing down booze all seem to infringe on each other as the revolve highlights one then another like so many fragile cubicles that contain their poison under greenish and phosphorescent light.

The action is frenetic and the lustrous Vanessa Kirby, as Stella, forever pulling up or down her underwear, creates a sense of frenzied business of a palpably erotic domestic kind. It’s as if Andrews is intent on showing how Blanche represents such a threat to the domestic bliss of Stanley and Stella – if that’s what their makeshift marriage amounts to – because this production is always overtly flirting with its own privacies.

The upshot is elaborate and operatic in its defiance of plain naturalism and is an alternative vision of a consumerist attempt to circumvent nature, which has its own kind of contemporary punch.

Kirby is likeable and adrift as Stella, although the way in which she attempts to lasso the accent of the post-war urban American South is distinctly less successful than her mastery of the royal family’s vowels as a young Princess Margaret in The Crown. Ben Foster as Stanley gives a decent but somewhat mousy performance, as if the enormity of the character, this ravager in a father’s celebratory silk pyjamas, cannot be presented with any full force of attractiveness without committing heresy and spitting on everything we hold sacred.

Foster’s performance is not only a million miles from Brando but it’s hard to imagine it being a recognisable characterisation to Paul Newman, who was Brando’s contemporary in the troubled he-man Tennessee roles, or to the younger Russell Crowe, who once aspired to play the role opposite Sigrid Thornton and was one of the only actors you could imagine succeeding in it – although both Alec Baldwin and John C. Reilly have had a go.

Streetcar remains a headlong fascination with some quotient of pity and terror. We gradually realise that Blanche is haunted by something mightier and more terrible than her moods and her mannerisms. Gillian Anderson is grand but she is also, with her mighty carapace of campery, pretty alienating, which makes the audience’s need to climb the summit of sympathy more difficult. There’s no denying, though, that this performance amounts to something.

Andrews’ production is in its way a very contemporary take on A Streetcar Named Desire – a strange, beautifully orchestrated circle around it by one of the great progressivist masters of the Australian stage who knows every trick the Germans can teach about artifice as a double game. He creates a formidable Streetcar, a difficult Streetcar and one that’s hard to love. It’s certainly worth seeing for the billowing extravagance with which Gillian Anderson strives – and succeeds – in the effort to create the fullest possible sense of the preposterousness of Blanche and then step by step, like someone removing make-up, establishes the human face beneath the mask.

The final moments, with the nurse and the psych, “the kindness of strangers”, is done like a slow and stately Trauermarsch and is affecting in a way that reminds us – through the paradox of innovation – of what a perennially fresh and startling work this play about men and women tearing each other apart really is.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Brutal force".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.