Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: A Streetcar Named Desire

Article excerpt

A Streetcar Named Desire

Young Vic, until 19 September

A Bright Room Called Day

Southwark Playhouse, until 16 August

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. …

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