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A Streetcar Named Desire

There is a thrilling restlessness to Benedict Andrews’ production of this American classic. Tennessee Williams describes a particular place in a real street in New Orleans where Stanley and Stella Kowalski live, but there are times when he requires it to become transparent. Designer Magda Willi takes this further: here the oblong apartment has no walls at all and it spins at varying speeds, providing a constantly changing viewpoint, so that a metaphor for febrile, unsatisfied longing is made concrete. This is theatre-in-the-round as we’ve never seen it before.

Andrews and Willi have dispensed with period detail and concentrated on interaction between the characters instead. The result – after initial acclimatisation to the constant movement – is disturbing and true to Williams’ subject matter, which was, for his own time, daring. Even the famous 1951 film, starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, cut references to gay characters.

Streetcar requires an actor of unusual power to play Blanche, the lost soul who attempts to cover her loneliness by holding on to the vestiges of an earlier gentility. Fresh from playing cool, imperious Stella in The Fall, Gillian Anderson, delicate and initially elegant in her neat cream dress and jacket, charts Blanche’s disintegration superbly. Humiliated when the truth emerges – that she has lost her teaching post after an affair with a 17-year-old and has dabbled in prostitution – she descends into drunken self-parody, a broken doll in her ridiculous pink princessy evening dress. The final scene, where she is taken away to an institution, is heartbreaking. Her sister Stella, played with down-to-earth compassion by Vanessa Kirby a passionate, cigarette-smoking Masha in Andrews’s Three Sisters, sits stricken, sobbing on the fire escape.

As played by Ben Foster from HBO’s Six Feet Under Stanley, Stella’s husband, all muscles and tattoos, is little short of a brute, and yet his volatile marriage seems to be based on genuine love. The crackling tension between him and Blanche has more to do here with class and anger than sex.

Andrews was last at the Young Vic in 2012, when his radical rethink of Chekhov’s Three Sisters won him the Critics’ Circle award for best director. Since then two plays by Arthur Miller have received innovative treatment: Ivo van Hove’s stripped-back A View from the Bridge at this same venue, and Yael Farber’s in-the-round Crucible up the road at the Old Vic. These American plays, in danger of becoming comfortable classics from the viewpoint of this century, are being excavated anew and found to be raw, surprising and with as much to say to us as ever about the pain of lost dreams and misplaced desire and, in this case, the tragedy of mental fragility.

  • Young Vic Theatre, London
  • July 23-September 19, PN July 28
  • Author: Tennessee Williams
  • Director: Benedict Andrews
  • Design: Magda Willi set, Victoria Behr costumes, Jon Clark lighting, Paul Arditti sound
  • Technical: Alex Baranowski music, Maggie Lunn, Camilla Evans casting, UK, Jim Carnahan casting, US, Rick Lipton dialect, Richard Ryder voice, Laura Flowers stage manager, Francesca Finney deputy stage manager, Sophie Rubenstein assistant stage manager
  • Cast includes: Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, Vanessa Kirby, Corey Johnson, Clare Burt, Branwell Donaghey
  • Producers: Young Vic, Joshua Andrews
  • Running time: 3hrs 25mins

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