The Young Vic has so far provided two of my best theatrical experiences of the year, and their latest production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire' under the fastidious direction of Benedict Andrews has already become the hottest ticket in town. Whilst reinventions of American classics seem to be currently in vogue in London, Tennessee Williams' 1947 drama remains the jewel in the crown in this outstanding and powerful revival.
Andrews sets the action in modern day New Orleans - a move that liberates the text and quickly becomes much more than a directorial gimmick. The play survives this transition, and more often than not benefits from the modern lens through which a truly psychological domestic drama can be played out in all its passion, grit and raw sexuality. Andrews breaks down the walls and removes the trappings of fussy furnishings that have the potential to get in the way, and instead presents a stark and somewhat clinical apartment that constantly revolves throughout, offering the audience in the round an ever shifting perspective on the world in which Blanche DuBois has entered.
The direction is expertly matched by Madga Willi's design which is successful in allowing the entire Elysian Field apartment to become transparent to the audience, whilst at the same time creating the necessary sense of claustrophobia needed for Stanley's boorish behaviour and Blanche's fragility to clash.
Despite the strength of the writing, this is a play that has always relied on its central performances. Gillian Anderson gives the performance of a lifetime as the iconic faded Southern Belle, reinventing the role for a modern audience. From her trepid entrance trundling Louis Vuitton luggage, fresh off the streetcar named Desire to the moment she is taken away to rely on the kindness of strangers, she is in full command of the role and of the entire stage. Never have I laughed along with Blanche so heartily, and never have I been so shocked to later find myself laughing at her, as her gradual demise proves to be fully affecting.
Victoria Behr's costume design heightens her character perfectly as she goes from one showy and cheap evening dress to another, playing her birthday scene in a ridiculous red Spanish number, and her final scene with Stanley in an oversized Barbie-pink prom dress. Here she is left looking like a faded American beauty queen as Stanley harrowingly pulls up each layer of taffeta for their date with destiny whilst the full company clinically begin to clean up the mess around them.
Ben Foster offers a suitably sweaty, burly and intimidating Stanley, becoming a true American patriot which gives an even sharper edge to his character. Dressed in floral shirts over the iconic white vest, we're given a deeper look into the troubled character who paces the home like a caged beast, bouncing off the poignant Vanessa Kirby as his wife Stella. There is terrific support from Corey Johnson as Mitch, acting as the perfect antithesis to both Stanley, and the chivalric hero of Blanche's dreams.
The final scene, as Stella watches her sister taken off to be sectioned, refusing to believe her over her husband, is so shocking and shattering that it becomes almost too difficult to watch. It is within these moments that Andrews' direction is at its most effective, as we can see three simultaneous scenes together in one panoramic view. From the men calmly playing poker, to the Doctor waiting outside and Blanche locked in the bathroom, the audience feels at its most omniscient and voyeuristic, but like Stella we can only watch helplessly.
It's certainly interesting to see a modern take on the play after Woody Allen's 2013 film 'Blue Jasmine', and through this perspective, the two seem more similar than ever. Despite the running time of three and half hours, I have never felt so gripped through a production, nor so thoroughly engaged with the drama unfolding. The pace is shockingly on point throughout, never does the text begin to sag or the action wain - a mark of true attention being paid to this great American classic.
This is a production which is likely to sit with you for sometime, and for many will become definitive. The heart of Williams' work remains fully intact, and the story is thrust into a modern perspective in the most challenging and affecting way possible.
For those who haven't managed to get a ticket to the sold out run, I urge you to make use of the Young Vic's first nationwide broadcast as part of the NT Live programme on 16 September 2014.
"The acting is superb, with Gillian Anderson giving the performance of her career as Blanche DuBois...there isn’t a moment when the tension slackens or attention lapses. It is an absolute knock-out."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Director Benedict Andrews's aim is to jolt the audience out of any cosy, complacent sense of familiarity with this playwright's world and to pay him the tribute of radical renewal that we have no difficulty with accepting in revivals of Shakespeare."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"This is still a powerful production that reminds us, thanks to the sterling performances, that Williams deals with incomplete people. In the end Blanche's woozy lyricism is as insufficient as Stanley's base materialism; and, in the performances of Anderson and Foster, this sense of two needy people colliding comes strongly across."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Gillian Anderson is electrifying as Blanche DuBois while director Benedict Andrews's modern-day setting allows Tennessee Williams’s play to feel bracingly fresh."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard