Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Streetcar Named Despond

Gillian Anderson as Blanche Dubois
Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois

I had high hopes for the National Theatre of London's new production of A Streetcar Named Desire, but that does not mean that I had high expectations. I want to love every film and play I go to, even a production of a play I've seen before and have loved in other productions, or a remake of a favorite movie. That said, there is something sacred about the work of Tennessee Williams, something vivid and haunting in the poetry of the words, the truth of the characters, the inevitability of the stories they tell. Maybe it's just me (but I don't think it is), but I feel the genius of this man was unique, and the voice he gave to the assortment of odd, lost, tragic people bears listening to. Streetcar was his masterpiece.

It is essentially a Southern story, and it is crucial that its setting is steamy New Orleans, where lonely, artistic outsiders seek to find themselves in its raffish, dangerous, dark corners. New Orleans was and is that rare thing, a world-class American city with a European history and a cosmopolitan sophistication--an authentic character that beckons, "I am authentic. You can be authentic here." Young Southerners traditionally moved to New Orleans to find themselves. Streetcar is about New Orleans, old New Orleans, run-down, broken, crummy New Orleans, waiting for salvation or rescue, both of which were to come years after the play takes place. If they have come at all. New Orleans is like a character in the play.

There is not a "small" part in the play. Everybody in it is part of the story. It is the story of Stella, a small-town Mississippi girl who moved to New Orleans to have fun in the city's spirit of revelry and dark adventures. It is the story of Stanley, who sweeps her off her feet and awakens her sexual nature with the irresistible force of his own. It is the story of Blanche, Stella's fragile sister who lives in a fantasy of her own life--a state of denial that is very often a Southern way of life. Blanche is deluded, yes, afraid of losing her youth and beauty, the only currency she has ever had. Raised to be a classic lady, she is in conflict about her sexual nature, and the only way she sees to resolve that conflict is to split herself in two -- the virgin and the whore. The inevitable confrontation with reality in the guise of Stanley Kowalski is too much for her tenuous hold on sanity before the close of the play.

Benedict Andrews, director of the National Theatre's production, missed all this. His New Orleans apartment, rather than a squalid, fringe-of-the-French-quarter in the 1940s, hovel, was more like an overpriced, undersized London flat--all white and minimalist and totally without character. No reason on earth for Blanche to exclaim in revulsion, "Never, never, never in my worst dreams could I picture--only Poe, only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe could do it justice!" She might not like Stella's choice of domicile, but nobody could describe that institutional box of a place in such terms. Either drop the line or have your set designer create an atmosphere as Williams described it. Andrews got that it was about sex, and brought that point home time and again with kettle drums when the characters were going for a romp between the sheets. I got the impression that his Stella, rather than being a healthy normal young woman with an overactive sex drive, was a slave to certain sex acts this Stanley seemed to need. Whenever she gave in to him, Stanley was on his knees in front of her. In Williams' play the couple are bound to each other with a wild, extreme sexuality--and they see nothing wrong with it. I can't quite accept that a man like Stanley would be that eager to give oral sex, but it would not be impossible. It did cast a slightly different light on his relationship with Stella.

When Gillian Anderson as Blanche, made her first entrance, I was confused at what she was wearing. It seemed to be something from the 1960s, and Stella too had a frock from that period--hers was a micro-mini. I wondered why anyone would choose to set this play in the 1960s. After a while I saw that it was meant to be contemporary, 21st century. I don't know why that either. The play is a classic but it certainly belongs in a particular place at at specific time. And Blanche would not have been stylishly or conservatively dressed at any period. She was trying to hold on to her youth--and her clothes would be fussy, frilly, and a bit out of style. She would be wearing something a girl in her 20s might have worn, 20 years earlier. She says over and over that she doesn't want to look old, and it's clear she would not have noticed that dressing young if you're not makes one look older. Anderson played Blanche at top volume and always with top force. She did not put on airs, as Blanche does constantly in the script. She did not soften, simper, or flirt. She demanded. She practically bellowed. Maybe this is more contemporary, but it is not the play I went to see.

Stanley, of course, was not Marlon Brando, but Ben Foster.
Ben Foster as Stanley Kowalski
Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski
He was not the Stanley I knew, not a sexy thug, not an animal out of a cage, capable of unbridled emotions and rampant passions. He was calculated menace, tough, to be sure, but I didn't see a hint of vulnerability and fear, the emotions Stanley is devoted to suppressing if he has to rape somebody to do it.

I'm not saying the roles can only be done by Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando. They were unforgettable, but I like seeing new generations get the chance at a superb play like this. I'm sure there are some valid reasons to ignore the New Orleans setting, to update the costumes and maybe even, as Woody Allen did in Blue Jasmine, downplay Stanley altogether and make it Blanche's story, changing her to a rich and stylish snob. If you're going to do that, at least change the title, change everybody's name--and face the fact that your script isn't up to Williams'.  

To be fair, I'll say that other critics found the National Theatre's production powerful and magnificent. I don't know what they saw in it, but maybe I missed something. I left after the first act. I couldn't bear it any more.


  1. Sounds hideous! The play that is. Three review was excellent.

  2. It wasn't exactly hideous, but it did miss the mark. This play will be done for generations to come, but I hope future ones don't choose to overlay a "concept" on it that goes against the grain of the original. Give me a delicate, edge-of-hysteria Blanche, and a Stanley a girl would kill to be forced to succumb to! I know there are such actors out there--even in England.