Streetcar. One word is enough to conjure an icon. Tennessee Williams’s finest play, written in the 1940s, is about a fallen woman trying to salvage her reputation before madness overwhelms her. All its horror and tension rely on the Victorian code that required a single woman to appear morally pure or to face ruin in the marriage market. The 1960s destroyed those conventions and this modern-day version feels like a lawsuit being pursued by a stammering counsel interrogating a corpse. The questions are baffling, the answers non-existent.
Director Benedict Andrews trusts his own instincts far too much and the author’s not at all. To evoke the lush, exotic heat of Louisiana, he goes for Danish minimalism and clean white surfaces. The Kowalskis live in a one-bedroom rung-on-the-ladder apartment with flatpack furniture and a fitted kitchenette. Nice little investment. Their compact home has been plonked, centre stage, on top of a narrow grey platform. Yes, grey. Just the colour to suggest the ochre humidity of a boozed-up summer in the New Orleans slums. Beneath the platform is an unseen axle that causes the apartment to twirl around the stage, sometimes clockwise, sometimes anti-clockwise, with eerie and laborious sloth. This Ouija board effect ensures that the actors are constantly being obscured by some fresh feature of the Kowalski’s flat as it lurches into view. Here’s the shower curtain. Next comes a frosted glass door. Then the back of the oven. Followed by the fire escape. Then the fridge. Then the Scandinavian bathroom and bidet. Whoops. The flat’s just changed direction. The fire escape’s coming back. Run! Overhanging the stage is a horizontal trellis, also grey, that creates a broken penumbra that disrupts the lighting.
As the set prowls in ominous circles, random shadows scud across the actors’ heads and mouths. It’s very hard to make sense of any of this. The Young Vic’s squash-court acoustics do little to clarify the twanging Southern ayuk-say-unts. And the performers puff non-stop on herbal cigarettes that infest the air with the reek of singed Opal Fruits.
The acting is as good as the casting will allow. Gillian Anderson has the natural persona of a cool, Anglo-Saxon rationalist whereas Blanche is a songster Celt, or a fiery Mediterranean, who simmers with fickle romanticism and impetuous lusts. Anderson can’t hope to capture her tormented fragility, her languid nerviness, her hummingbird grace, her sense of imprisoned yearning. She just comes across as a Botoxed gold-digger driven nuts by whiskey and shagging. And she has no reason to dump herself on Stella and her tattooed, putty-brained husband. She’s the kind of slinky young blonde (aged 30, according to the text) who’d hop on the next jet to New York and bag herself an oligarch or a dotcom billionaire. But no, she falls for a balding, needy warehouse slob named Mitch, because, like most sex bombs with expensive tastes, she can’t wait to marry a fat forklift driver who lives with his mother.
The sensational role of Stanley requires a handsome, heavyweight bully who can inspire a troubling mixture of envy, admiration and hatred. Here we get chubby little Ben Foster, who looks like a children’s conjuror and has the sexual allure of a partially-cooked barbecue sausage. Vanessa Kirby’s slinky Stella is great to watch even though her crop top and her clingy jeans reveal a sucked-in physique which, according to Blanche, make her look ‘as plump as a little partridge’.
This production is one of the funnier versions I’ve seen but the laughs are untinged by pathos. Blanche is like a lightweight schemer from a sitcom, all manic appetites and improvised subterfuges. Her ‘party of apes’ speech, where she calls Stanley sub-human while he eavesdrops, unseen, at the door, seems hysterically funny. And entirely throwaway. Better directors make this the play’s awful pivot where Stanley’s plan for revenge starts to solidify in his mind. I never knew great art could grate so artlessly.
Tony Kushner’s play, A Bright Room Called Day, is set in Berlin in 1932 where a crew of young Marxists are fighting Hitler. A universal theme, the death throes of democracy, is marred by Kushner’s brash, shouty characters and his Professor Branestawm stagecraft. He hops between Berlin and New York in the 1980s, where a dim feminist explains Nazism to us. She declares that the epigram ‘Reagan = Hitler’ merits preservation and she records it in public using the immortal apparatus of spraypaint on concrete. Back in Berlin, the troubled commies bicker, nag and screech. They’re led by a Hungarian film-maker who describes his vision of socialism by reciting his latest screenplay, shot by shot, while romping euphorically from chair to chair. He does this twice. He shouldn’t have done it at all. The commies are hated now. Time was, they were the good guys. They deserve better.
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