‘Stellaaaaaaaa!’ Not the sound of London’s beer-addled massive as they head back to the parks, but one of two endlessly quotable lines from Tennessee Williams’s febrile 1947 drama ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. The other quote everyone knows is ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.’ It’s a line from faded Southern belle Blanche DuBois, and in the latest production streaming for free as part of the National Theatre at Home series, the role’s in the safe hands of the fantastic Gillian Anderson.
It’s not a National Theatre production, though. This 2014 staging comes from the Young Vic and is famous for two things: ‘X-Files’ star Anderson as DuBois, and the fact that the entire set revolves constantly during the runtime. It’s a remarkable bold flourish from director Benedict Andrews, and was widely interpreted at the time as a manifestation of tragic anti-heroine-or-whatever-the-hell-she-is Blanche’s wandering, disintegrating state of mind.
Williams’s play is a landmark in twentieth-century US theatre, unpicking all kinds of uncomfortable truths about the inequalities and prejudices of America’s ‘classless’ postwar society. Blanche is contemptuous of her working-class brother-in-law Stanley, despite happily living off his charity. At the same time, she is trapped in a culture which idolises normative female allure as her own looks fade, dragging her mind down with them. Beyond all that, though, it’s a supercharged exercise in massive melodrama, deploying same-sex infidelity, disappearing plantation inheritances, and all manner of gothic baggage. Vivien Leigh won an Oscar for her 1951 film portrayal of Blanche opposite Marlon Brando.
In Time Out’s review of this production back in 2014, we highlighted Anderson’s performance: ‘[She gives] Blanche a potency often absent in a character who can default into the pathetic. When she suddenly bustles into the white trash world of her estranged sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby), she may be fleeing demons but she looks for all the world like some glamorous extraterrestrial.’ We also raved about Ben Foster as Stanley: ‘A world away from Marlon Brando’s brutish film interpretation, [he] is a troubling and original presence. He’s musclebound and tattooed, but there’s a peculiarly Woody Allen-ish quality to him.’
Don’t worry, though, this production pulls no punches: ‘The last half hour is a horrorshow tour de force, as a drunk, fragmenting Blanche staggers through a house that shifts and spins nauseatingly under her feet.’
If your only experience of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is the version in ‘The Simpsons’ (which tbf is good, too), then definitely watch this one. Perfect for an uncomfortably warm night.
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