Tennessee William’s three-act hit play takes a modern revamp at the Young-Vic yet underdelivers even with the aid of a star-studded cast and the William’s’ brilliant writing.
Photograph: Johan Persson
Directed by Benedict Andrew, A Street Car Named Desire in its London production is a mismatch of the present and the past ages. Originally set in the south, the production has southern belle Blanche DuBois (Gillian Anderson) at the centre of the scandal. The play follows Blanche's disastrous attempt to seek refuge in a veil of visiting her sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby) and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski. Through the course of the three acts, the audience watches Blanche unfold before their eyes as it becomes clear that she has created her a fantastical reality for herself in order to shield her from her past demons. However, her illusions are shattered due to the growing tensions between her and her sister’s ‘brutish’ husband, Stanley. Andrews utilises the Young Vic’s round stage to the best of his advantage in order to showcase Blanche's mental instability. Magda Willi designs a stage that is a rectangular frame of the house; this stage revolves around the theatre and ables the audience to get a view from each side. This enables several scenes to play simultaneously as well as capturing the importance of the different point of views on display The audience is privy to several perspectives rather than just one in a regular theatre. The caged stage results in a kind of claustrophobic environment for the actor that further resonates with the drama that unfolds.
This is not all that is changed within the Pulitzer-prize winning play. Originally set in the mid-’40s south, the play updates the set and costume design to the modern-day. This seems like a plausible attempt by Andrews however falls short when there is no change to the dialogue as well as the dialect. Words and references are the same for the mid-’40s and hence is confusing for an audience who seemingly thinks to be watching a modern version. Even the accents within the play are very starkly different to anything a Londoner’s ears may have ever heard. The most pronounced accent is of southern belle Blanche, Gillian Anderson does a great job of keeping with her voice the same tone and tempo throughout the play. However watching the play online as part of the National Theatres initiative to broadcast, the camera lets you see the facial expressions in such great details that enable the viewer to catch the brilliance of Anderson; however, the loud scratchy accented voice is something that it too enhances. A voice that may work to live audience defiantly does not translate too well with a tv one. Stanely (Ben Foster ) accent, on the other hand, is very welcoming as a stark contrast to Blanches. Stella’s voice seems to have a perfect blend of tone and accent between the two and seems most relatable to the play.
In terms of sounds again, another element that may not have translated well to both audiences is the transitional music that does not seem to have any place within either the modern-day aspects of the play or even its 40’s southern roots. Blue lights, screeching guitar sounds as well as bagpipe music is jarring as it is used to transition between somewhat sombre scenes that may call for more nuanced music. Subtle transitions would have been definitely more pleasing to the senses.
The play, however, does a great job of combining the serious, the sad and the humorous moments. In an unexpected scene, Anderson seems to have just as good comedic timing as she does in a heartbreaking end scene as she is escorted out. Anderson takes the genius of William’s and translates it beautifully. Kirby also should not be overlooked, a kind of middle character between the two ferocious souls of her husband and sister, she plays subtly incredibly well and goes through the play unquestionably with ease. When she cries out for her sister shows her true talent as she rounds her character as a whole form the carefree at the start to the mournful at the end. Finally, A Street Car Named Desire’s run at the Young Vic has been a successful one. Its star cast leads the dialogue beautifully through great direction from Benedict Andrews, It screening online does enhance certain flaws that question whether the play is to be set in the present day, but it cements Tennesse William’s plays as relevant for what seems to be for the rest of time however far or near that seems in the current environment.
'A Streetcar Named Desire' was on at The National Theatre and this recording was shown as part of National Theatre Live. More plays can be found on their Youtube channel here.