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Review: Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire, Young Vic

Gillian Anderson and Ben Foster in A Streetcar Named Desire. Production photo by Johan Persson

Australian director Benedict Andrews burst onto London's theatre scene two years ago with his avant garde production of Chekhov's three sisters - there was a mound of mud and a slowly disappearing stage made up of small square tables. It divided opinion - I loved it flaws and all - so some may approach his production of a Streetcar Named Desire with trepidation.

There is no mud this time but Stella (Vanessa Kirby) and Stanley's (Ben Foster) two room apartment is positioned on a revolve in the centre of the auditorium. As the play begins so does the revolve giving you an ever changing view of the actors.

You have to work to follow the action as sometimes parts of the set slowly obscure what is going on - there are no best seats - but the effect is like emotional voyeurism. The sense of being 'an audience' is heightened but an audience that shouldn't really be watching this domestic drama unfold, you are a rubber-necker passing an emotional car wreck.

It can feel frustrating to begin with as you miss some of the close ups (intrigued by how this is going to be filmed for NT Live) but the performances punch through and that is the power of this play. It is muscular and tense, dripping in emotions and desires both complex and base. From Stanley's first up/down assessment of Blanche's (Gillian Anderson) assets to Stella's raw and guttural sobs at the end.

Anderson's Blanche is trapped in world which is a mixture of her past life and her own fantasy. Her tailored and showy clothes and manners at odds with the urban, earthy Kowalski home where she has sought sanctuary. She regresses as the play progresses to a time of her youth, of flouncy prom dresses and tiaras. In some ways reminded it me of the character Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations (a part she has played on screen opposite Kirby as Estella) a brittle and fragile soul destroyed by one devastating act.

Miss Haversham's power is in the manipulation of others, Blanche's is in seduction. She clings to it like a sinking life craft. Stanley is the curve ball in Blanche's world. He confuses her. He is the antithesis of the men she usually mixes with and isn't won over by her flirtatious manner. However, despite her damning "ape" appraisal of him to Stella there is a sense that she is drawn to him.

Stanley and Stella's relationship is the most physical I've seen in a production of Streetcar. Kirby's Stella has a toughness but most importantly a passion for her husband that makes her forgiveness of his violence more easily understood.  It is a passion that seems to overwhelm and suppress any feelings of fear she might have for his volatile behaviour.

Foster's Stanley is a powerful presence. His physical form (he's no stranger to the gym) and manner has a hint of menace from the outset. You can feel him on the stage. He could explode at any time and when he does people and things get thrown and smashed.

Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit featured in the Three Sisters and music plays its part here too. From blistering guitars to a most appropriately positioned snippet of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game.

The Streetcar Named Desire came it at three hours 40 minutes at this second preview performance and I'm not sure I've seen anything else of that length that was worth every minute. This is a production that offers you punches from one hand and a bunch of white lilies and red roses in the other.

It runs at the Young Vic until Sep 19.


Lots of connections but here's a quick one: Gillian Anderson was in Shadow Dancer with Clive Owen (Mr W cameoed in The International) and Andrea Riseborough who appeared on stage in The Pride with him.