‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ Blanche Dubois
If you’re looking for a literary treat before lockdown’s slight easing, you could do worse than immerse yourself in the National Theatre’s compelling interpretation of the classic Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire. This contemporary version has everything; from revolving stage, relevant music and a magnificent performance by leading X-Files actress, Gillian Anderson. Benedict Anderson’s production is well worth three hours of your time and leaves you writhing over themes of lust, morality, abuse, sibling relationships and sexual dominance.
Anderson is fulfilling the role of her dreams. She has long envisaged herself in the role of Blanche Dubois and delivers an electrifying performance, light years away from Vivienne Leigh’s demure 1951 depiction, as she weaves the audience’s emotions between humour, empathy and pathos, amplified by her lengthy Southern drawl. A belle of her time, Blanche has exhausted her resources – physical, mental and material – and comes in search of refuge and protection as she returns to the French Quarter of New Orleans. The sparseness of the metal cage that is the stage, conjures up images paradoxically of the iconic setting, without relying on period detail. Perhaps it simply reflects the timelessness of the story and the ever-evolving complex relationships between men and women.
Ben Foster, as Blanche’s brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, is menacing from the start, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to escape the oiled macho image, with a hint of ape-like charm as portrayed by Marlon Brando in the original stage and screen versions. Foster displays his physical masculinity in tantalising splendor but it is the inner workings of his mind, which has the audience crying out in both outrage and confusion, as his vulnerabilities are unveiled. But ultimately, his dominance of his wife, his ‘I am the King’ assertion, and his conviction that a woman who has had to fend for herself and use her sexuality to survive is only fit for rape or incarceration in a mental institution, all lead to us detesting this character with relish. He plays Blanche as much as she tries to play him, but it is her assassination of his character to her sister Stella that finally tips him over the edge as his uncontrollable rage takes a devastating turn. The abuse and violence of Foster’s Kowalski shocks us to the core.
So too does the conflicting and complicit behaviour of Blanche’s sister. On first appearance, Stella, (Vanessa Kirby) appears as no shrinking violet, but as the drama progresses, the audience becomes aware of her acceptance of the unacceptable, and though Blanche may want the two siblings to escape for selfish reasons, you can’t help wondering, during this time of rising domestic abuse, why her sister didn’t listen to her. Kirby is superb in this role; compliant, complacent, conflicted and torn.
But it is Anderson who shines, translating the direction of Benedict Anderson to create a visual as well as emotional masterpiece. The scene changes, with the score of Alex Baranowski and other equally suited jazz and blues pieces, mixed with dark lighting effects, highlights the genius of Anderson’s portrayal of Blanche’s deterioration. Her frailty breaks through the bravado and her disappointment in Mitch (Corey Johnson) is the climax of her toxic loves and self-loathing.
The costumes add to the pathetic glamour of the whole performance – Stella in jeans and tee-shirt, tight maternity clothes, and Blanche in designer gear reminiscent of a by-gone era, carrying off the naivety of the black polka dot against canary yellow background, yet her style degenerates with her spirit as drink and dejection overcome her. The lifting of layers of taffeta is almost identical to a different Brando-Leigh scene, but with equally dramatic effect.
This is an interpretation that will haunt you for some time to come, like the rattling streetcar named Desire itself, not least because of its relevance today.