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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Young Vic


  Gillian Anderson/ Ph: Johan Persson

Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, along with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Eugene O’ Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, is an indestructible masterpiece capable of surviving the slings and arrows of outrageous directorial tampering. But as conceived in the round by Benedict Andrews, this latest revival comes perilously close to self-destructing.
Two factors mitigate against it: a constantly rotating rectangular set by Magda Willi that might be more at home at a fun fair, and updating the action from 1947 to the present. In either case I’m not sure what Andrews was hoping to achieve.
For starters, Williams was meticulous about the background music he wanted in order to enhance the sultry, sweaty atmosphere of a New Orleans summer. Well, that’s gone. Alex Baranowski’s substitute score makes no impact at all. Practically everyone smokes, which is less likely today. There are arcane references to 40s bandleaders such as Xavier Cougat, and despite the use of mobile phones, long distance calls have to be connected through an operator. Nor do young lads, in this day and age, go from door to door soliciting newspaper subscriptions. In the present context the latter makes no sense at all and, understandably, one of the play’s most poignant scenes now elicits laughter. 
Nor, in this contemporary makeover, does the strange but affecting scene with the Mexican flower-seller woman (“Flores, para los muertos...”) add up to much. The treatment of mental health has also progressed since 1947. As written, the way Blanche DuBois is hauled off to an asylum would not happen today.
But it’s the revolving set, furnished to look like an Ikea promotion and bearing no resemblance to Blanche DuBois' description of it as being straight out of Edgar Allan Poe, that inflicts the bulk of the damage on Williams’s haunting text. Because it is constantly on the move it was difficult to concentrate on the text.
From where I was sitting, for example, I was unable to see the climactic  arrival of the medics responsible for taking Blanche to the aforementioned asylum.  And there were times when the drawn curtain that separates the Kowalski’s bedroom from their living room made it impossible to see the full stage or hear what was being said.
Rarely, if ever, have I seen a production of this great play when so many of the lines were unintelligible. The biggest casualty is Gillian Anderson’s Blanche. Anderson is physically perfect for the role but her vocal range is limited, and often, in her more emotional outbursts, she just falls short of shrieking.
Clearly problematic are the acoustic hurdles provided by the set. At least two of the play’s most memorable lines – “Suddenly there is God so quickly,” which Blanche exclaims after her big scene with her would-be suitor Mitch, and “The cathedral bells: they’re the only clean thing in the Quarter” – hardly register. Mind you, the bells don’t register either. They’re almost inaudible in this production.
More worrying, though, is Anderson’s lack of vulnerability. I’m not asking for a fey, caricatural Southern belle verging on the dotty, but I found myself unmoved and even, on occasion, irritated by a certain steeliness in her. Blanche should break your heart. This one does not.
Ben Foster’s Stanley Kowalski, on the other hand, is one of the best Stanley’s I’ve seen. Marlon Brando’s definitive performance did no favours to the plethora of would-be Stanley’s all hoping, over the years, to bury Brando and make the role their own. Foster comes close. He’s an “ape” and a “brute” as described, but he also manages to find that elusive human element that helps round out a basically two-dimensional character.
And the sexual chemistry he has with Vanessa Kirby, outstanding as his long-suffering but adoring wife Stella, is the most potent thing in a revival whose disconnect between its contemporary update and the original text, and a revolving set that makes it impossible to concentrate fully on the complex nuances of Williams’ visceral domestic tragedy, is a mighty disappointment.


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