A Streetcar Named Desire

streetcarThe Young Vic’s performance of Tennessee William’s classic ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, with Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois, Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirby as Stella, was being beamed to firstsite in Colchester (and other locations!) last night as part of National Theatre Live. These live broadcasts of plays are excellent value for money – £13.50 a ticket for this performance, especially for shows with limited runs and whose tickets sell out quickly.

We’d previously been to Colchester Odeon to see Benedict Cumberbatch playing the monster in Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’, in the show where Cumberbatch and Johnny Miller alternated the lead roles. And that broadcast is being shown again at firstsite, and is well worth catching – and which will give you a chance to get to firstsite before it’s temporary closure in 2015 for a ‘rethink’ and some interior work.

We’ve been to firstsite for some sparsely attended but excellent films (the East Anglian Film Archive), and some moderately attended films (the SF season with the excellent full-length Fritz Lang ‘Metropolis’, and a disappointingly ‘muddy’ version of Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’).

Yesterday broadcast at firstsite was ‘Sold Out’ although not all seats were filled on the night. Interestingly, in our 50s, we were very much at the younger end of the audience!

The performance was ‘in the round’, with a rotating stage, which critics were slightly divided over. The set comprised the front of the DuBois’ residence, and the two small rooms of their small tenement flat in steamy dowtown New Orleans. The walls weren’t in place, giving the audience a chance to view actors when they would normally be off set. And the thin gauze curtain that divided the main room off gave additional dramatic effect.

The broadcast gives the cinema audience the chance to see tight close-ups, although the only slight issue with the ‘in the round’ and the rotating set, meant that occassionally you were distracted by an audience member in the background (they had evidently been asked to wear dark clothes, but not much you could do with platinum blonde hair!) or, once, by a Fire Exit sign gracefully sliding past in the background.

The play was written way back in 1947 by Tennessee Williams and has had a string of leading actors taking on the key roles, most notably Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in the famous film version. Ben Foster took on the Brando role at Stanley Kowalksi. He’s not an actor I’m familiar with, but I think he muscled up quite a lot for the role. He didn’t quite fill Brando’s boots in terms of intensity, but had a strong physical presence (more later).

The star of the show was, of course, Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois, the older sister who comes to stay, emotionally fragile and nervous, and who has ‘lost’ the family house back in the country. I didn’t watch the X-Files, so my exposure to Anderson has been in two BBC Dickens adaptations – she played Miss Faversham in Great Expectations, and even more notably Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, which was an amazing performance of bottled-up passion and torment that sticks in the mind.

Here in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ she is absolutely perfect. She opens the show tottering to the Kowalski residence in stilettos, pulling her luggage behind her, and for the next three hours we get a masterclass as we watch Blanche gradually reveal and unravel, as she drives a wedge into the domestic harmony of her sister Stella and her husband Stanley. Vanessa Kirby plays Stella, and doesn’t get overwhelmed by the two main leads, and is clearly a young actress to watch out for.

We watched the drama unfold as the stage slowly rotated, with dramatic noise and lighting between scenes, as we find out more about Blanche – her recent history, and the young boy she loved and lost. Anderson is pitch-perfect, handling the southern drawl impeccably, and looking like she was born to wear the gorgeous dresses that come from her luggage bag. Corey Johnson plays Harold, the neighbour who falls under her spell, and who perhaps is her once chance of survival.

The tension gradually builds, with Stanley getting under her skin and exposing what is underneath, and she challenging his brutish and apelike behaviour.

In the dramatic conclusion, with Stanley having revealed her recent indiscretions to suitor Harold, and Stella in hospital giving birth, we see Blanche disintegrate before our very eyes, with alcohol leading her down to a very low point, wearing a spangly dress and wonky tiara, lipstick smeared over her face, desperately making up a story about a new suitor and a way out of her current situation. But Stanley has seen through her from the outset and perhaps seeing it as part of the ‘Napoleonic Code’ (what belongs to my wife belongs to me) he is the cause of her final breakdown, taking her in a memorable scene as he unpicks the layers of her taffeta dress in a truly ape-like manner, proving himself to be the beast that Blanche saw.

There’s a numb concluding ten minutes, as Blanche is coaxed from the bathroom to be led away to a mental hospital, with only an appeal to ‘Miss DuBois’ being successful to get her to leave.

It was an absolutely world-class performance from Gillian Anderson, excellently and innovatively staged and directed by Benedict Andrews, and it was probably the most value for £13.50 that we’ve ever had in Colchester.