“Don’t you just love these long rainy afternoons […] when an hour isn’t just an hour—but a whole little piece of eternity dropped into your hands—and who knows what to do with it?”
As the nationwide lockdown drags on, this oft-quoted line from A Streetcar Named Desire has taken on a new painful resonance for many of us. If, however, you do find yourself with a long rainy afternoon to spare this week, watching Benedict Andrews’ fantastic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play will make an hour feel like a minute and a day all at once.
Gillian Anderson gives the performance of her career as the fading Southern Belle Blanche DuBois, who seeks refuge from the collapse of her family estate in the cramped New Orleans apartment of her sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby). In the events that ensue, the conflict between the romantic delusions of America’s moribund Southern past and the unapologetic realism of its burgeoning capitalist culture takes on an all-too-human dimension, as the already fragile Blanche becomes locked in a bitter confrontation with Stella’s no-nonsense, blue-collar husband Stanley Kowalski (Ben Foster).
The four walls of this claustrophobic, sparsely furnished space are completely stripped away in this National Theatre production, set upon a slowly-revolving platform that leaves both audience and cast with nowhere to hide as temperatures rise, pressures build and initial tensions spiral into explosive violence with devastating consequences.
Anderson’s dazzling portrayal of Blanche is worlds away from Vivian Leigh’s. Utterly vulnerable and yet brazenly fierce and sensual, she resists her descent into insanity until the play’s (very) bitter end. The raw humanity and nuanced complexity Anderson brings to the role leaves you vacillating between deep dislike and profound sympathy for the play’s duration.
The mere presence of Foster’s Stanley is suffocating. Rough around the edges and dripping with sex appeal, if his electric chemistry with Kirby isn’t enough to take your breath away, the almost animal brutishness he displays in his numerous violent outbursts most definitely will. He too taps masterfully into his character’s more vulnerable side, unveiling the suppressed insecurity that lies behind the macho posturing and his hell-bent desire to uncover the truth of Blanche’s elusive past.
Kirby slips perfectly into the role of the conflicted Stella, exploring the toxic interplay between sex and abuse that shapes her marriage, whilst Corey Johnson’s Mitch offers us moments of much-needed light relief from the otherwise unrelenting tension. For a play where little actually ‘happens’, the pace is dizzyingly intense. We, like Blanche, feel as though we are on a streetcar hurtling headlong toward disaster.
Alex Baranowski’s chillingly haunting score complements the action beautifully from start to finish. As the lights go down steamy jazz and blues permeate the set, immersing the audience in the sensuous atmosphere of Elysian Fields. As time passes and Blanche’s demons draw ever nearer, the increasingly dissonant sounds of the varsouviana work perfectly to externalise her psychological deterioration. The addition of songs such as Chris Isaac’s Wicked Game and Cat Power’s Troubled Waters are equally well-chosen, serving as fitting emotional punctuation between the play’s eleven lengthy scenes.
These elements come together with powerful force on stage, turning the Young Vic (or in this case your living room) into a pressure cooker of lust, brutality, delusion and desperation. By the time the three-hour production reaches its tragic finale, you are left disorientated, emotionally shattered and mildly motion-sick. When you see it for yourself, you will understand why Anderson found herself “hanging onto reality by a thread” by the end of its run.
This critically-acclaimed adaptation remains the Young Vic’s fastest-selling production for good reason. And, thanks to the National Theatre, the live stream is free for all to view on YouTube until May 28th. In Blanche’s famous final line, she admits she has “always depended on the kindness of strangers”, and we too should be grateful to those at NT Live for providing us with such fantastic theatre in these trying times.