“Is anything wild?” As a new hand is dealt, the question hangs in the smoke, the odorous sweat and the steam that spiral above the table where Stanley Kowalski and his friends lounge at their New Orleans poker party. Yes siree, Bob, in Stanley’s drawling parlance – there’s plenty wild about this production of the great Tennessee Williams drama, and it’s not just the one-eyed jacks. Directed by Australian-born, Reykjavik-based auteur Benedict Andrews, it was a record-smashing hit for the Young Vic Theatre in 2014, transferring to St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York two years later. In fact, the staging could hardly be more intense if it featured a smouldering young Marlon Brando. Gillian Anderson is Blanche DuBois, Williams’ iconic creation of bourbon-steeped, tattered delusion and threadbare femininity. Never have I seen Blanche’s disintegration made to seem more terrifying, or her final moments of helpless capitulation to a tragic fate more shattering.
Andrews is a director with no scruples about stripping bare a classic, and here his radical approach liberates Williams’ play – which, in all its well-worn, highly coloured familiarity, with its intricate curlicues of finely wrought language, can so easily lapse into campiness or cliché. His staging has all the heat and atmosphere you could wish, but it also has a breathless tension, overhung by a sense of economic and emotional desperation that feels utterly immediate, transcending the work’s overt theatricality. Many critics have described it, I think inaccurately, as “an update.” But although Magda Willi’s skeletal steel set offers no literal suggestion of a French Quarter tenement and Victoria Behr’s costumes are modern, the period feel is retained. Blanche’s flounces and furs, and Stella’s jeans and summer frocks, salute the shapes and styles of the late 1940s, as do the men’s denims, shirts, work boots and singlets. Surely, rather than resetting the play today, Andrews is attempting something subtler. What he’s presenting is a world we recognise, but not quite the same one we live in. We view it from our 21st-century perspective through a gauze of illusion, just as Blanche gazes back at her own past through eyes dimmed by booze, mental illness and self-deception.
To reinforce that queasy déjà vu, that sensation of not-quite-reality, Willi and Andrews keep the stage in perpetual motion, revolving at varying speeds like a wayward carousel. When Anderson’s Blanche takes a consoling slug of liquor, the room does, indeed, spin. As an indication of her inability – and willful reluctance – to get a grip, it’s both claustrophobic and horribly hypnotic. Alex Baranowski’s slinky jazz music flirts, I suspect deliberately, with the more conventional trappings of a Williams staging, but it’s soon displaced by jarring rock – PJ Harvey’s growling song of devotion To Bring You My Love, Chris Isaacs’ Wicked Game. Vivid colours add to the effect, Jon Clark’s lighting violently plunging the action into deep red or blue. At times it’s like being trapped in some nightmarish photographic darkroom, where images flash and distort, ugly memories displacing cherished fantasies. And when, after an almost unbearable accumulation of dread, the terrible moment arrives when Ben Foster’s Stanley rapes Anderson’s prostrate, lipstick-smeared, almost drowned-in-drink Blanche, he lifts layer after layer of pink tulle from the skirts of her tawdry ballgown, covering her face. The resulting rose-coloured veil between them is as much to shield his own eyes from the deed as hers.
On arrival, Anderson’s appearance is expensive chic. Her luggage is Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Her gold heels are high, her sunglasses huge and impenetrably dark. How quickly we come to believe that all those designer labels are cheap knock-offs. Vanessa Kirby, superb as younger sister Stella, radiates sensuality. When she speaks of husband Stanley, she freely and delightedly admits he’s of “a different species,” her voice sinking to a guttural gurgle of pleasure. Their sexual connection is frank and fervid, Foster’s Stanley conveying a quality of visceral impulse. We, and a mesmerised Blanche, watch him wriggling his hips out of his work clothes. He buries his face in his wife’s crotch. He urinates enthusiastically into the toilet of the much-contested bathroom where Blanche likes to take her regular long soaks for her “nerves.” He is sometimes cruel, but he is far from stupid. When he overhears himself insulted by his sister-in-law, whose jibes are ignorant, snobbish and racist, the revolve ensures that we see, in his silent fury, just how much irreparable and dangerous damage is done. Kirby and Anderson together create a touchingly convincing sibling bond of shared history, loyalty, rivalry and frustration – and there’s an insinuation here that there may also be a certain degree of shared temperament. What price, ultimately, might Stella (and the baby she later gives birth to) pay for her addiction to the love of a man who regularly beats her, and for staying with him? Her screaming hysteria, as after a gut-wrenching struggle Blanche is led away to a psychiatric hospital, hints that she, too, might be forced to fight for her sanity.
The supporting company is stuffed with talent. Clare Burt is all worn, wiry resilience as Eunice, the upstairs neighbour whose own volatile marriage is the backdrop to the central drama, reinforcing the impression of conflict and abuse as a norm. And Corey Johnson is quietly impressive, amid the melee of noisier passions, as Mitch, Stanley’s sad, sweaty, card-playing pal, who briefly seems to offer Blanche a chance of a future – even if she’s secretly slightly revolted by him, and he’s not half as sweet and simple as he seems. But then, that’s the way with illusions: They’re destined to disappoint. Not so this outstanding production; by the end, when dreams lie broken all around while the world keeps remorselessly turning, we are devastated, yet we’re also exhilarated.