There’s some clever fourth wall fracturing when Gillian Anderson first enters as Blanche DuBois. Looking impossibly glamorous, she glances around at us as dubiously as she does the downbeat New Orleans neighbourhood in which her character’s sister, Stella, lives. She doesn’t even take off her enormous sunglasses for the first 15 minutes. Director Benedict Andrews doesn’t ignore the former X-Files star’s fan-polished celebrity sheen – he plays on the breathless adulation that saw this production sell out almost immediately. It brings another dimension to the tragedy of the rhinestone sparkle of Blanche’s desperate self-fiction.
But be warned: if the Lyric Hammersmith’s recent reinterpretation of Streetcar as part of its Secret Theatre season fired you up with its radical redrawing of the boundaries of the play’s characters and staging, you might be disappointed. The setting may be modern-day, but Anderson’s Blanche is very much in line with the damaged Southern Belle played by others in the role. However, this doesn’t mean there’s nothing new to see.
Streetcar is about power – who has it, why and what it means to each character. Ultimately, it’s a struggle between Blanche and Stanley Kowalski – Stella’s husband – for ownership (of Stella and, ultimately, their own identities) in which the past and the present are exploited as weapons. And what’s refreshing here is just how formidable Anderson’s Blanche is as she strides into the Kowalskis’ lives. There’s clearly trouble brewing under the surface, but for the majority of the first half, she’s sharp, savvy and single-minded.
The effect of a shrewd, less obviously fragile Blanche – in comparison with, say, Vivien Leigh’s take on the character – is to increase the stakes in her initial clashes with Stanley. We may already guess the outcome, but it doesn’t feel as inevitable as in some productions: Anderson ensures that Blanche’s jabs at her brother-in-law really draw blood.
And, after a sharp and brutal burst of violence, the concern she expresses for her sister comes across as real rather than opportunistic: young, love-struck and defensive, Vanessa Kirby’s deeply conflicted Stella is clearly a victim of domestic abuse. There’s no Carousel-style nonsense about punches being like kisses in Benedict’s direction of these scenes.
Staged in the round, the production’s revolving set provides us with an ever-shifting perspective on events, heightening the pressure-cooker feel of the Kowalskis’ tiny apartment, presented like a cross-section floor plan, with only a single curtain separating Blanche from Stanley. It reflects the different angles from which Benedict approaches the characters. And while Anderson might be the star attraction, the most compellingly original performance is Ben Foster’s.
His tattooed Stanley is a world away from the matinee smoulder of Marlon Brando’s eroticised working-class ‘Polack’ – his is an ex-US Army soldier who (it’s strongly implied) is suffering from PTSD. He’s angry and confused by Blanche when she arrives – her insults visibly hurt him. His later claim that he had her number from the start comes across as bluster rather than insight. He’s a volatile ball of rage with no movie sheen to his capacity for violence. One of the production’s most powerful moments is Foster sitting in the bath, alone, naked and pathetic, after beating Stella.
This is a high point of a gripping first half directed by Andrews with pace and clarity. He never lets Williams’ rolling dialogue slide into Deep South whimsy: there’s an edge to every exchange, grit in every encounter. The other characters tend to fade into the background, but the loaded power-play between the talented Anderson and an exceptional Foster keeps our attention focused on them.
It’s a shame, then, that the production flounders at the same time Blanche begins to come apart at the seams. As the truth emerges about her dead husband, her affair with a student in her hometown of Laurel and her nights at the Flamingo Hotel, the tone shifts to heavily applied surrealism, lacking the freshness of what has gone before.
There are still moments that pack a punch. Anderson is hauntingly good as a drunk, lipstick-smeared and hollow-eyed Blanche, staggering around in a stained debutante dress, looking like a corrupted Disney princess – her last, desperate attempt to cling to a fantasy life that is crashing down around her. And the way in which Stanley covers her unconscious face with her skirt before he assaults her in the play’s final scenes is queasily horrific.
But, overall, a sort of feverish dramatic inertia – a sameiness of performance and tone – creeps in not long after the interval, as spotlights abound, echo-y music plays, characters get locked into their places and the revolving set becomes an obvious metaphor for Blanche’s crumbling mental state. After the pace, urgency and nuanced character work preceding it, this otherwise powerfully visceral production feels disappointingly laboured as it draws to a close.