This week, I think I may have seen the best theatre production of my life… in a cinema! Thanks to National Theatre Live, The Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire was broadcast to over 1,000 cinemas in the world… including the one close to me. I think it’s a great initiative to take theatre into the cinema and make it available to people who wouldn’t have the means to see a piece (they will soon be showing Of Mice and Men, which played on Broadway recently – thank you!). You do feel you are attending something special, especially when it is live. Perhaps this was because of this production in particular, but everyone was glued to the screen. Some of my neighbours were eating popcorn, but I didn’t notice. The excitement is not the same, but the audience’s concentration is. One has to applaud the technical side of it: live streaming, little microphones on the actors’ bodies, multiple cameras…
Of course there’s nothing like seeing a play in the theatre itself, but NT Live offers a great alternative.
The excitement around this production has been enormous, as Gillian Anderson is playing the legendary role of Blanche Dubois. As I’ve written before, this role is simply one of the best for women. Playing it brings you up to a new level, and although many different women have played it (or versions of it: Blue Jasmine for example) in theatre and film, no two Blanches are the same.
Director Benedict Andrews brings Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play into today’s New Orleans, with a modern house interior, modern costume and even speech. What struck me about its modernity was how savagely conjugal violence, desire and alcoholism were portrayed. This made this choice of setting very efficient. These themes never disappear with time.
Of course Blanche is never really modern. She is stuck in her youth and is afraid of age and facing today’s brightly lit world. While she starts out in mega high stilettos and carries a Vuitton suitcase, it is full of old costumes and polka dotted dresses. “Everything I own” is in there, she says.
Another great choice was allowing the stage to turn, as if on a very slow merry go round. This gave every audience member an ever changing perspective of the stage, and especially made the shadows move over Blanche’s face. Because of her fear of proper daylight, she always had to adjust herself to remain in the shadows. The interior of the Kowalski’s house did not appeal to me that much however. It seemed too clean, too white. It didn’t reflect the heat the characters felt. That being said, the actors made up for that. Did they rehearse once in an overheated room? One truly believed the sweat dripping down their spines.
Vanessa Kirby as Stella Dubois was really impressive to me. Although she is Blanche’s sister, they differ so much, for example in the way they hold themselves and react to their surroundings. Stella is confident in her choices, although they may not always be rational. Kirby was a joy to watch.
I’m afraid I missed too much of Ben Foster as Stanley, as I didn’t find the camera focused on him enough. This is of course a limitation of the camera: it doesn’t give the audience the choice of where to look! This being said, I was always afraid he was going to strike something or someone. One of the heart-breaking scenes with him, and also the most human, is when he wants to apologise to Stella for striking her.
Gillian Anderson was perfect in her role of artificially poised woman who turns into a tragic clown. Her voice, especially her sighs at the ends of phrases when she tried to laugh was very precise, although in the last part of the play perhaps too stuck in high registers. This is a minor detail. Her physicality was elegant but always wobbly, drunk. When she speaks of taking baths all afternoon in order to refresh herself in the New Orleans heat, you believe her. You also feel her immediate pain when after her bath, Stanley raises his voice. When she speaks of not ever wanting to let a man near her, you actually believe her too, despite her known past. She is like a petite doll that will break if she is not left in a quiet room.
I was going to stay until the end of the bows, but for some reason I teared up. Blanche’s fall was truly overwhelming. A wonderful performance and production on all levels, there’s nothing more to say.