Gillian Anderson (with Ben Foster in rear) in "A Streetcar Named Desire"
(photo: John Persson)
We are probably all of us at some point or other in our lives dependent on the kindness of strangers. Certainly Blanche Dubois, the heroine of Tennessee Williams’ classic play (his second major work) “A Streetcar Named Desire”, has always been just that. In the Young Vic London production (the fastest selling show in its history), still set in New Orleans but not in 1947 but the present day, she continues to fascinate in her iron-willed vulnerability. Blanche is especially compelling when portrayed by an actress of the caliber of Gillian Anderson, opposite an equally commanding performance of the brutish Stanley Kowalski as played by Ben Foster. On a par with the two leads are Vanessa Kirby as Stanley’s wife Stella and Corey Johnson as Mitch, making a stunning quartet. Helmed by Australian director Benedict Andrews, with a continually revolving steel framed set by Swiss designer Magda Willi, this is a surprisingly fresh and relevant production. The rest of the impressive cast include Eunice Hubbel (Clare Burt), a Mexican Woman (Lachele Carl), Steve (Branwell Donaghey), a Young Collector (Otto Farrant), Pablo (Troy Glasgow), another unnamed Woman (Clare Prempeh) and a Doctor (Nicholas Gecks) and Nurse (Stephanie Jacob). This is a raw, sexy production with a strong violent subtext. It’s an unusual emphasis (especially the portrayal of Stella’s neediness and competitiveness with her sister for her husband) that makes the play seem all the more contemporary and uncomfortably pertinent. As Blanche herself says, she doesn’t tell the truth, she tells “the truth as it ought to be”. By the end of the play, after Blanche, who entered having lost her home, leaves having lost her mind, it’s a shattering experience all around, for the audience as well, largely due to the extraordinarily compelling level of performing.
The technical contributions are all top drawer, from the Music by Alex Baranowski (utilizing the music of Jimi Hendrix, Chris Isaak and Patsy Cline), to the Costume Design by Victoria Behr, Lighting Design by Jon Clark, Sound Design by Paul Arditti, and Fight Direction by Bret Yount. But it’s the set that commands one’s attention with its constant changing of perspective. This works in the theater, as noted in the introduction to the broadcast, to make each audience member’s experience unique, different from every other theatergoer. In this HD broadcast of the production, it’s sometimes distracting, but this could have been avoided with more carefully synchronized camera rehearsal.
Williams prefaced the published version of the play with a quote from “The Broken Tower” by Hart Crane: “And so it was that I entered the broken world to trace the visionary company of love, its voice an instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled) but not for long to hold each desperate choice”. Blanche is the epitome of desperation, which was a product of the era in which the play was written, a time of post-war political and emotional uncertainty and insecurity. That it speaks to us in much the same way in such a timely manner is sobering. As do all greatest works of literature, it deals with universal themes and very familiar conflicts. Blanche’s last line in the play is, literally, the famous one: “Whoever you are…I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”. After Stanley soothes Stella, the very last line of the work, spoken by Steve at the card table, is a mundane call back to reality: “This game is seven-card stud.” And there you have it. Life goes on, for Stanley and Stella, which will always be the same, yet thanks to their exposure to Blanche’s fantasies, in some fundamental ways, forever changed. As are we.
Just announced by Fathom Events: the Broadway production of “Of Mice and Men” with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd, November 6th at a participating theater near you. Also upcoming from National Theatre Live” are an encore of “Frankenstein” as well as two new productions, “John” on December 9th and “Treasure Island” on January 22nd.