“I have always relied on the kindness of strangers”
“Well that’s a stupid thing to do”
…..or so goes the famous line in my head. I blame Tony Kushner who appropriates Tennessee Williams’ most famous play twice in his own most famous play. And that’s the trouble with famous plays, we all think we know how it goes. We all have our own version of them in our minds. Whether it’s the film version or Marge Simpson appearing as Blanche. However actually this production made me think about how well I really knew the play, which is always a good thing.
As a side note, for me it was particularly interesting, having spent far too many years looking at Kushner, to return to Williams. Kushner talks often of his love and influence by Williams and I would even say that I see Kushner as one of Williams’ worthy successors in American drama. Seeing Williams performed after spending so long with Kushner then I could see the influences on his drama. Oddly in knowing the playwright he influenced so much so well, made me appreciate the smaller nuances of Williams’ drama more. And has made me love Williams’ work more also.
Overall this is an excellent production. The acting talent in the central trio alone would take even a dire production to new heights. Even though I have some issues with the production, it’s anything but dire but the three central actors take it to another level.
Firstly the set. Yes this will go down in theatre lore I think as the spinning Streetcar. The set, an open rectangular kitchen/bathroom/living room of the Kowlaski house is on an almost permanent revolve. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t keen. Firstly the advantage of the Young Vic’s in the round (or technically octagonal) space gives an intimate setting regardless of how you stage it. This strangely shaped rectangular room seemed to needlessly restrict space for the performance. The rotation, which I can see the motivation behind, it gives alternative views on each scene dependent on where you are situated and the revolve was put to great use in emphasizing Blanche’s state of mind. It is a clever, interesting theatrical device and I appreciated what it was being used for, and to some extent what it achieved. The idea that some parts of the performance were hidden from, and in turn revealed to different sections of audience is an interesting way to play it. The idea that the revolving direction and speed are linked to Blanche likewise clever and interesting. However, these clever and interesting elements negate the fact that a constantly spinning set is a little irritating (not to mention as Les Mis proved to me, sea sickness inducing) I was glad to have a seat upstairs as my view was largely uninhibited up there. Overall though not a set or design choice that appealed.
However the modernised set, to reflect the contemporary setting of the piece did work for me. I’ve seen reviews and comments that as a result certain lines in the play, or certain aspects of it no longer work. To an extent yes, certain references may not stand up to scrutiny in the contemporary setting. However this is an issue with playwright copyright and what is permitted to change. I’m fairly ambivalent and lenient with such things anyway. In watching it what actually struck me is, in the second half when we realise how judged Blanche is for her behaviour with men, is just how shockingly contemporary that still feels. We still hold women up to such standards, and women still understandably unravel under that pressure. For me the contemporary setting worked then and the world of Blanche, Stella and Stanley doesn’t seem that far removed from our own. Even the military references obviously more indicative of Williams’ time, don’t seem in a re-militarized America of today that much of a stretch (really, has America ever been anything other than militarized?) And though some might find Blanche’s ‘Southern Belle’ routine ‘dated’ and not in fitting with today, I’d disagree, I could envisage someone of her circumstance falling back on such cultural models or moulds. In fact once she starts to truly unravel in the second half the slightly incongruous nature of that ‘act’ makes the disintegration all the more tragic.
Overall then I loved the direction, the staging though problematic for me, I could see motivations for, and the updating worked. I had some issues with pacing. The first act rockets by and this works quite well, feeling like these characters are sort of crashing into each other and the world being turned on its head a bit. In the second half I could have done with a bit of slowing down a lot earlier. Things grind to a devastating halt in the final scene where the moments are finally given space to breathe and to great affect. Before that there are scenes I wanted to slow down, to allow the characters and the audience to catch up a bit. Lord knows nobody wants to make this play any longer but there is something to be said about taking your time in some scenes- ‘moments’ as one of my favourite acting teachers was fond of. And though there are substantial moments that make you pause as an audience and catch your breath at times the careering pace felt a bit much to allow audience and characters to really be present. That said, when it does stop it’s devastatingly effective.
As costume is one of my personal obsessions and bugbears simultaneously, I couldn’t let this production go by without mentioning costumes. Costume is obviously a big part of Blanche’s character and much is made of her outfits in the text. This production I felt got this pitch perfect. From her neat suit at the start echoed in the final scene, to her outlandish dresses. The moment she changes into a Southern Belle-esque ballgown is a brilliant piece of costuming that gets a laugh but is also heartbreaking. Even her ‘exotic’ coloured dressing gown is pitch perfect. My favourite clothing elements were however the shoes. Not just because, well they are a mighty fine collection of shoes. Constantly Blanche is in huge heels, like Dolly Parton is rumoured to, she steps from bed or bath directly into fabulous heels. Practically this of course helps the tiny Gillian Anderson gain a few inches, but in terms of character I thought this was a wonderful touch. Blanche is so obsessed with appearances, of being put together and right, that having her never take off those heels unless she was unseen behind the shower curtain-the only time she is un-heeled, was to me a marvelous touch to the character. If I’d taken notes I’m sure I could have read something into each shoe choice-certainly the sparkly shoes are saved for dramatic purpose. But the outfits for Blanche were so meticulously constructed, including and especially the shoes, they might just be my favourite part of this production.
Overall it’s the performances that make this play. Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby make a strong Kowalski duo. Stella in this production is as strong and important a character as Blanche, Kirby not overshadowed by Gillian Anderson’s Blanche. In fact Kirby’s performance is that strong, that engaging I found myself wanting more of Stella than Williams’ play gives us. Of course the evening belongs to Gillian Anderson. As much as I can be objective about the production, I find it difficult to be objective about her in most instances. However, I don’t think I need to be in this particular instance. Her Blanche is nuanced and despite her exaggerated character feels very real. She’s so very controlled in the role, bringing a slick, quite barbed but quick-witted Blanche to life in the first part of the play. When her cracks begin to show although the character unravels Anderson is an actress in complete control of the nuances of the character. I saw things in Blanche I’d never considered across the performance and there’s an emotional centre to it from the moment she steps on stage. When she breaks down a little to Mitch there is a sense of what is further to come at the end of the play but she knows how to measure it out, to return a little to the earlier character before the final scenes. When the play finally reaches its climax it is truly devastating. If you don’t know the play, through the realisation of what has been happening in the final scene. When the famous line is delivered it has stopped being the line we all know, and becomes about this Blanche in this moment. And if nothing else that’s when you know a revival has worked, when those famous lines take on their own life again. And if that fails to move, Anderson’s slow final walk around the set, looking into the eyes of audience members as a broken lost Blanche is truly a devastating end to an emotional production.
On a personal note, seeing Gillian Anderson on stage again was a magical experience. I’ve said above that I find it hard to be objective, and I think I’ve been fair in my review here, my thoughts echoed by the press and other audience members. There are very few actors I love I’m quite so enamored with though, I suppose 20 years of fangirling will do that to someone. What I do realise is that I am still hopelessly in love with her as an actress (and a person) and I’m kind of ok with that. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend my Birthday.