Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Young Vic's Streetcar...A Real Gem

Young Vic's Streetcar Named Desire...TRIUMPH. Smart, edgy, some new and bold choices. The standard lines that are normally delivered as oration rather than as contribution to real dialogue were almost underplayed, still important, but unlike many productions this show wasn't just an excuse to deliver the few famous one liners ("I shall die of eating an unwashed grape", "Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers", "Poor thing, the quinine did her no good", "I don't want realism; I want magic!", "Stella! Stella for star!", "The Tarantula Arms is where I took my victims", "Hydrotherapy they call it", "STELLAAAAAAAA!!!!!!", etc.).

The minimalist, modern staging (without changing dated lines referring to Western Union or a phone number that begins with "Magnolia") was interesting and not usually distracting, and the loud, disturbing scene change music enhanced the experience of Blanche's fragile mental state.

Gillian Anderson (Blanche) and Vanessa Kirby (Stella) gave the traditional, over the top Southern Belle accents, but as old southern aristrocrats from Mississippi, it kind of works. Ben Foster (Stanley) gave no contrived accent and Corey Johnson (a native of New Orleans) didn't over do the all too often cartoonish portrayal of a Southern dialect (without respect for specific regional particularities).

Ben Foster sometimes seemed not menacing enough (almost soft a time or two, despite his threatening rhetoric and physical bulk), but I appreciated that he relied on something other than raw and unrelenting rage to communicate his fearsomeness. His was a much more nuanced Stanley than is often presented.

But the most amazing performance was given by Gillian Anderson. No hint of Scully, no wink to the X-Files, and no repeat of other Blanches. Her Blanche was a real person who had experienced real pain and disappointment and who carried real regret and faint hope. Her descent into madness wasn't cartoonish, her alcoholism was believable, and her particular affectations and mannerisms were unique to this actor's performance of this character for this production. She was, in short, the best Blanche I've ever seen!

Blanche falls desperately in love with and marries a man who she learns is gay (and involved with an older lover), and that pain is exponentially increased when he discovers that she knows his secret and his response is to commit suicide (not an uncommon response to the life ruining experience of being outed in a time when same-sex love and attraction were not only taboo, but criminal). Beyond that, Blanche is the caregiver for a series of relatives who die leaving her no money, and she has to mortgage the family estate to care for her ill relations (and then bury them). When on a teacher's salary she can't pay her debts, she loses her family home and lives in a seedy hotel where she medicates her loneliness and supplements her income as an evening companion for men. Eventually, she seduces a high school student (a cry for help? a self-destructive symptom of depression? desperate loneliness? an attempt to recapture lost youth?) the consequence of which is the end of her teaching career. She then spends the summer with her sister who has married a brute. She stays with her only living realtive (1) to have a play to live and (2) to create a new narrative for her life in an attempt to sanitize her past. Still, her secrets are exposed and while she is crumbling under the weight of shame and fear, her plight is worsened when she is raped by her brother-in-law. Her sister can't let herself believe that her husband is a rapist, so she has her Blanche committed. And the show ends with Blanche, who for all her difficulties is "never deliberately cruel", finally receiving care and kindness, but not from a friend, lover, neighbor, or relative but from a psychiatrist (presumably from a state hospital).

Gillian Anderson played this complex character powerfully. Anderson's Blanche had a soul, an inner light, painful memories beautiful fantasies, a glimmer of hope, and fading resilience. She was, simply, marvelous!

Tennessee Williams' shows tend to deal with homosexuality by means of a tragic heroine (or anti-heroine), Southern families, mental illness, and nobility that has been tarnished or hidden by disappointment and heartbreak. His spirit was very much alive and powerfully present in this production.

When Broadway and London share their gems nationally/internationally on cinema screens, it is a great gift, and tonight's showing of Streetcar was particularly amazing. 

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