DELUSION AND DESIRE IN THE DEEP SOUTH
If you are on one of the high back-row benches there is a bar to rest your feet on. It can create for a moment the illusion of being on a roller-coaster, braced for a wild ride. By the second half of this stunning production that sense was powerful indeed. One would have been quite grateful for a lap-strap.
The Young Vic is particularly suited to Tennessee Williams. Its habitual audiences (I came a day after the press night) have a warmth often missing in more formal and expensive theatres. You are more likely to hear gasps, even murmurs of “Nooo!”. This passionate unselfconscious identification serves the lyrical compassion of Williams very well, for his great gift is to lay before us the flawed, the deluded and disappointed, giving them language so beautiful that love reaches out even to the worst.
Director Benedict Andrews as director has updated setting and costumes, putting Blanche duBois, her sister Stella and Stella’s thuggish husband Stanley Kowalski right here in the 21st century. And although it is a play of its time, of a tough new America kicking aside the gentilities of the old South, this works : skinny, sensous Vanessa Kirby in her pedal-pushers and sneakers conveys the downwardly-mobile contentment of Stella, Ben Foster’s Kowalski is a volatile, chippy, crop-haired ex-sergeant from anyone’s army, and Gillian Anderson’s Blanche – over-groomed and unstable in her desperate refinement – could again belong to any age. Magda Willi’s design is revolutionary too (literally: the skeletally suggested two-room apartment at 632 Elysian Fields turns slowly round through most of the play, making its first uneasy move at the moment when Blanche dives into her sister’s cupboard for the first drink.
Its movement, like a slow-motion grinding of inexorable Fortune’s wheel, means that our view of the claustrophobic struggle is enriched by seeing “offstage” moments in bathroom or bedroom: around it on the floor and fire-escape occasional neighbours bicker or chase, and at one heart-stilling moment, with Blanche spilling out her terrible truths to Mitch in dim silhouette, a Mexican vendor wanders by offering “Flores por los muertes” as if they are the dead walking. As Mitch leaves, Blanche drags on a Miss Havisham ballgown to deck her latest fantasy before Kowalski – with horrid symbolism – digs impatiently through the layers of pink net to rape her.
Much has been said about Gillian Anderson’s remarkable performance, taking Blanche through to final pathetic craziness through superior, princessy snobbery, unsettling flirtatiousness, strident rebukes to the hitherto contented Stella and lady-of-the manor insults to Kowalski (a very funny moment has him standing behind her in the doorway, hearing her tirade about his apehood). It is a brilliant performance, in a part which is always disturbing because her desperate Southern-Lady monologues about culture , beauty and art and a ‘little temporary magic that ought to be the truth” are, face it, actually expressing just what the average theatregoer believes about art and culture. Thus the very arguments which hold us in our seats are being brutally guyed as a cover for Blanche’s degradation and drunken descent into madness. Cruel.
Other performances are also remarkable: Vanessa Kirby’s Stella catches the practical sensuality and shrugging, loving acceptance of her bit-of-rough husband, but also brings to life her love of Blanche and the old fealty of the lost Belle-Rive homestead. And Foster – who at first I thought too slight and uncharismatic for Kowalski – soon astonishes by making sudden terrifying bursts of violence and dry pragmatic irony both seem genuinely and credibly part of his reality. It’s a London stage debut, and a tremendous one. A word too for Corey Johnson, the most moving, awkwardly dignified Mitch I have yet seen.
Tough stuff, and though well over three hours – you stagger out on to the Cut just before eleven, all passion spent – it never fails to grip. There is a crashing, alarming rock soundscape by Paul Arditti with music by Alex Baranowski: contemporary too, but not distractingly so. After its marvellous grim A View from the Bridge, the Young Vic’s courageous freshness of vision wins again.
box office http://www.youngvic.org 020 7922 2922 to 19 Sept
supported: Bruno Wang & an anonymous donor
NB: it will be broadcast live to over 550 UK cinemas and many more worldwide on 16 September as part of National Theatre Live
ALSO NB – Young Vic offers its first day seat lottery: names taken at the box office in person at 5pm with winners (2 seats each) announced at 5.30pm for each evening’s performance and at 1pm (winners announced at 1.30) for matinees. All tickets in the lottery £20 or £10 for under-26s.