A Streetcar Named Desire at the National Theatre online
Tennessee Williams’s classic A Streetcar Named Desire – best known as Elia Kazan’s adaptation starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando – is online via the National Theatre as the filmed 2014 production at the Young Vic, starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche.
Benedict Andrews’s incarnation quivers with emotion – passionate, violent, sexual, but sensitive, human, and witty. Williams’s portrayal of damaged souls and psychological torment amid conflicting values emerges here with full force like a tornado. Not a wilting faded flower like Leigh’s Blanche, Anderson’s Southern belle is brash, sensual, provocative – seeming to barely contain her smouldering libido – yet has a self-deprecating sense of humour. Simultaneously strong and fragile, Blanche is duplicitous yet forthright about it: “I don’t want the truth, I want what ought to be the truth.” Her gradual unravelling from outspoken bombshell to broken woman is tortuous and heartbreaking.
Ben Foster’s Stanley Kowalski is more well-rounded than Brando’s man-boy, adding realism to the domestic abuse element – not just aggressive and morally vacuous, Stanley is an apparently normal, sometimes nice guy. His vehemence toward Blanche is not baseless, as she constantly berates him as sub-human, particularly after his beating of her pregnant sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby) in a drunken rage. In contrast to the sisters’ genteel upbringing, she sees Stanley’s lifestyle as depraved and dangerous for Stella. The latter’s discovery of her darkest secrets reveals a woman who has been shaken and damaged by trauma – yet Stanley is merciless, propelling her over the edge with one barbarous act.
Lending a complex humanity to a woman who is exploding with colourful, exuberant “Southern” vivacity, Anderson’s portrayal of Williams’s tragic diva is brilliant. She is irksomely verbose, self-delusive and self-destructive but charming – her final scene is so remarkably moving and intense it is breathtaking. Kirby’s Stella is sensitively and superbly acted, Foster is impressive as a multi-dimensional but ruthless Stanley, and Corey Johnson is outstanding as Blanche’s potential beau, Mitch.
Alex Baranowski’s stunning, sultry jazz punctuates the piece during transitions – as well as songs like Chris Isaak’s I Want to Fall in Love – and combined with various moody, evocative shades of light and a creatively well-staged set, the effect is steamy and stylish.
Engaging, funny, passionate, relentlessly tough and heart-wrenching, Andrews’s A Streetcar Named Desire is an exceptional, powerful tour de force.
Photo: Johan Persson