Next Stop, Elysian Fields

Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster

Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster

There really was (and possibly still is) a streetcar names Desire. I know because I photographed it as a precocious, naughty 12-year-old on a school visit to New Orleans in 1953 – only six years after the play opened on Broadway. Of course I didn’t see anything of the real working-class culture represented by Stanley Kowalksi and his poker-playing buddies. But our group stayed in the Vieux Carré, the French Quarter, with its bars populated by “B-girls,” who got punters to buy them shots of whisky that were actually tea, so that they could drink hundreds of them in the course of a day’s work. They weren’t necessarily prostitutes, but hostesses, who listened sympathetically to the troubles of the guys buying their drinks. A pre-teen should not have known any of this. But I had prepared for our tour by reading my parents’ copy of New Orleans Confidential. My voice had already deepened, and I took advantage of my absence from home to buy and smoke my first cigarettes, and somehow I even managed to buy a drink in a bar. I learned something of the world of Tennessee Williams when we ate one evening at Galatoire’s, where I daringly ordered a bottle of wine. The waiter actually brought it to our table, when a teacher spotted the waiter and the bottle, and put an end to our prematurely grown-up adventures.

The atmosphere of the just post-War French Quarter (I’ve been back three or four times since) was heady, heavy with the promise of sex. Even a 12-year-old who could pass for 16 felt enveloped by raunchiness and ripe for corruption, though it was some years before drugs and rock and roll got added to the repertoire of hedonism.

Australian director, young (42) Benedict Andrews, eschews much of this traditional setting in his production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. (You can see it for yourself as the National Theatre is broadcasting it live to thousands of cinemas all over the world on 16 September, Instead of the usual claustrophobic basement flat, his designer, Magda Willi, has set the play in an open, see-through rectangular structure that resembles a contemporary flat with a bathroom, bedroom and living room/kitchen. When I took my seat in the theatre-in-the-round my heart sank, as the bathroom shower curtain obstructed my view – but my spirits rose again as the entire structure slowly began to revolve – which it did for the whole of the play.

With the exceptions of the flower-seller and the 1940s/1950s hat-wearing doctor who comes at the end of the play to take Blanche to the asylum, Victoria Behr’s costumes are mostly contemporary. Stanley (a wonderful simian performance by Ben Foster) wears Nikes, cargo trousers and the Hawaiian shirt, and his poker mates are similarly clad. Stella (a resilient, young girlish Vanessa Kirby, who nevertheless convinced me that she liked her bit of rough) is clad in 21st century casual. Only Blanche Dubois’s Louis Vuitton-knockoff luggage contained a variety of costumes, from fox furs to flouncy dresses, a full-skirted prom dress and a rhinestone tiara, along with a figure-hugging spotted frock.

The production is a bit like one of those learner-driver cars with a pair of steering wheels – a vehicle built for two. It shows off the director, Mr, Andrews and the female lead, Gillian Anderson. I’m pretty sure Ms Anderson gives a great performance. My full endorsement is precluded by the fact that the revolving set meant that we couldn’t see or hear parts of the long speeches written for Blanche, so, naturally, the effect of them was a little lost.

It’s a good directorial idea. The open rectangle instantly puts you in mind of the spaces created by similar structures, “a skin – or a kind of cage, as in a Francis Bacon painting – in which the characters are trapped and defined,” as Mr Andrews puts it explicitly in a programme note. He also likes the whirr of the revolve, which he thinks of as “the gears of the mythic engine grinding the wheels inexorably forward.”

As for the costumes and the details of the set, Mr Anderson emphatically does not want these to be of the period. He recognises that what drives Blanche is “nostalgia and loss” (not forgetting the guilt of driving her gay husband to suicide – though surely this is less plausible in our Nike-wearing times). I’m not clear why he thinks that other “production’s fetishistic nostalgia for 1940’s period detail” distracts us from seeing what the play is “actually about, which is sex and the cataclysmic force of desire.” “Sexual hunger” is the chief attribute, he says, of every character in the play.

Ms Anderson, though, is too good an actress to confine herself to a single dimension of her character – though the sexual hunger is definitely there. Owing to the movement of the giant turntable, she was facing away from us during her passages dealing with the death of her “boy” husband. So despite the magnificence of her offstage final defeated walk around the set, I didn’t get the full measure of her performance.

It will probably shock Mr Andrews, but I’d love to see this production again, cage and all, in a traditional proscenium arch theatre.

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