Blanche DuBois is a dramatic character vivid enough to have walked off the pages of Tennessee Williams’ classic A Streetcar Named Desire and take on a life of her own. She’s become a by-world for the archetypical southern belle who doesn’t chime as clearly as she once did.
The role requires filling some big feather-adorned high-heel slippers, from Jessica Tandy in the original Broadway production to Vivien Leigh in the Olivier directed UK debut and, of course, the film. Since July, Gillian Anderson has more than filled these shoes, winning rapturous praise from the critics and audience for her performance in Benedict Andrew’s Young Vic reprisal.
Finally able to get hold of one of the golden tickets after the run extended into mid-September my expectations were high, so the first 15-minutes were a little deflating as the production spluttered to life ; some of the southern drawls seemed wonky, their words muffled in the revolving stage, the actors, now in their final week seemed a little distance.
But after this bumpy start, the production sparked into life and heated up like a New Orleans afternoon in July, revealing Gillian Anderson’s Blanche in all its glory. She really is phenomenal as Blanche, a woman so easy to play as a caricature. For Streetcar to be successful, you have to, if not like her, then sympathise and empathise with this self-obsessed woman, and Anderson instils her with an unaffected fragility, and even uncovers a certain amount of common sense behind her ramblings.
A Streetcar Named Desire is the tale of Blanche DuBois whose life has unravelled to a point where her only sanctuary is with her sister Stella Kowalski, and her husband Stanley in their two-room apartment in New Orleans. Blanche’s presence in the tiny flat with a volatile couple who love and hate with a passion, lights the fuse paper of her ultimate end.
What could be a very static play, set only in two rooms, pulsates with life in this production. Anderson’s Blanche is never still, twitchy and restless, floating her hands like a geisha performing a dance. Blanche’s Japanese-influenced dressing gown is perhaps another link that, Blanche’s heightened femininity, like a geisha’s, is an act and her livelihood. Blanches oxygen is the male gaze, a gaze so intense she is ultimately destroyed by it. It’s fitting that at one point she is dressed as a Jim Beam soaked Barbie doll.
Benedict Andrews moves the story from 1947 to the modern day, stripping the play of any southern whimsy. The set is Ikea minimal, the costumes, bar the odd eighties style prom dress, sleek designer dresses and high heels (highlighting the influence the play had on Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine; when Gillian Anderson first walked on, I thought Cate Blanchett was understudying for the evening).
But the production is still southern in its soul. Anderson, when she hits her stride is mesmerising, the poetry of Williams southern dialogue lilting and lyrical in her delivery. Even in a stark white cube in a theatre in Waterloo you can imagine the sweat trickling down your back, the stickiness of your legs on a plastic chair.
Andrews’ dispenses with the jazz for an electrifying rock and dance soundtrack, including PJ Harvey’s scuzzy ‘To Bring My Love’ and Cat Powers’ haunting cover of ‘Troubled Waters’ (“You must be one of the devil’s daughters they look at me with scorn”) and it hugely affecting and powerful.
While Anderson is the standout star, she’s not alone in her galaxy. Ben Foster as the brutally masculine Stanley Kolwolski gives a performance as powerful as his biceps. Vanessa Kirby’s imbues Stella with a steely confidence, and Corey Johnson is quietly captivating as the hapless, sweaty Mitch, Blanche’s would-be saviour.
by Suzanne Elliott