Fringe Online 2020
Directed by Benedict Andrews, designed by Magda Willi, with Costumes by Victoria Behr and Lit by Jon Clark, and Sound Paul Arditti, Music composed by Alex Baranowski. Dialect’s by Rick Lipton, Voice Richard Ryder. Fight’s Bret Yount. Jerwood Assistant Director is Natasha Nixon, supported by the Jerwood Foundation.
Screen Broadcast Director’s Nick Wickham, Technical Direction Christopher C Bretnall, Script Supervisor Cecilia Savage, Lighting Director’s Mike Le Fevre, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher. Till May 28th.
‘Only Poe… only Mr Edgar Allan Poe could do it justice’ Blanche says snobbishly. Surely not about Magda Willi’s gleaming out-of-period cube with tenement balconies and stairwells lapped by an audience in this 2014 Young Vic production of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Benedict Andrews.
Curiously though not only the drama but also the period props shade to Poe before the end, as imperceptibly the Kowalskis’ home goes retro. Even Alex Baranowski’s music starting with grunge inside disco-flashing lights reaches back through soft rock to 1940s radio. Victoria Behr’s costumes do too: form contemporary champagne dress-suits and suitcases we’re drifted back in chiffon. It’s a compelling take on timelessness.
One of the sheerly terrific things of this NTLiveAtHome screening is reminding us how theatrical this production is, how present the audience, despite Jon Clark’s adroit lighting – often slash electric blue, green – or a palate of reds and violets – for segues and night-scenes. Like The Barber Shop Chronicles last week, this is viscerally immediate theatre. We’re given a few glimpses of them throughout.
Gillian Anderson inevitably dominates given her centrality and raw, raucous Mississippi. To Blanche’s disingenuous sashay into her married sister’s life and confrontation with husband Stanley, Anderson cuts into it vocally like the acetylene Stanley uses at work. The only distraction here is it’s like hearing the volume control turned up higher than anyone else’s except Ben Foster’s Stanley or Paul Arditti’s Sound. Anderson’s voice does settle and perhaps that too is the point.
More important Anderson unsettles as her past unravels and fuelled by alcohol and her equivocal attraction to Stanley Blanche loses what illusory chances – Mitch – she thought she had and breaks down. It’s a shuddering disturbed transformation, more a shedding. It’s Foster’s territorial imperative to sue Blanche as if a possession but one he feels no loyalty towards.
There’s some adroit moments as when Blanche relates her marriage to a young gay man discovers him with an older man, the streetcar with the name rattles past. The outline of Suddenly Last Summer rattles prophetically past too, with variations. It’s a key to Blanches sexual obsession with young men and pre-empts the Mexican woman selling flowers for the dead. Andrews’ production is touched with such subtleties though the wash of sound and volume of delivery can blur them.
Foster counterpoints here with Anderson’s high-wrought extremes with a kind of metallic gleam, a monomania of his own with a metallic gleam. He’s not alluring. He’s particularly effective when stripping away Blanche’s lies and delusions – to her and anyone else. What he perhaps doesn’t convey is the animalistic attraction both feel for each other. Foster and Vanessa Kirby’s Stella though exhibit a kind of foreshadowing of rape, in his forcing his wife into sex and her acceptance of this as a kind of foreplay. With Blanche’s it’s a curious passive ritual, and this core moment’s robbed of its chill.
It’s Kirby too sashaying at the start and slinking into her husband’s embraces that’s as revelatory as Anderson. Kirby’s clearly from the same family strongly sexual, prepared to slum it and more realistic with what compromise follows. She’s also prey to delusions. When Clare Butt’s neighbour hard-headed Eunice Hubbel – who puts up with brute Steve – tells her she must stand by her man and ignore Blanche’s allegations it tears her apart. Kirby more than anyone in this part exhibits the shuddering horror and guilt Stella should feel, and the wail at the end is significantly hers. Whether sexy, protective, angry with both sister and husband or complicit and bereaved, Kirby’s Stella is a revelation.
Corey Johnson’s Mitch too is fully believable capable of rages of his own and at the end protesting at Blanche’s treatment: but ultimately he accepts, settles down into the cards. In this production he’s more than a sap – though still comical – but a beating presence you feel Blanche might make some kind of sanctuary with him: though she’s clearly attracted to young men like the Young Collector (Otto Farrant, blown away by her advances). ‘I don’t want realism, I want magic!’ is still after all her battle cry nailed by Anderson here. Of course it might prove impossible even without Stanley’s interjections but Anderson trembles on dwindling into a wife – something we know she wouldn’t stick at. What more definite thing awaits her – on the other side of the comfort of strangers – could be terrible.
Anderson’s voice and her final, clinging collapse brings down a catastrophic arc that should disturb us. Andrews’ more than allows the play to breathe, though it finishes in 2 hours 48, not as some suggest over 3 hours.
There’s vibrant work from Branwell Donaghey’s gasket Steve, Nicholas Gecks’ southern soft-spoken Doctor, Stephanie Jacob’s muscular Nurse, Lachele Carl’s mysterious Mexican Woman, Troy Glasgow’s easy Pablo, and Claire Prempeh’s choric Woman.
Willi’s cube with its verticals with people living on top of each other, allows us the unnerving sense of a soul flayed with nowhere to hide as bunting and screens are torn down, a life exposed and stripped beyond its skin.
Some will hate that, and there’s occasional very slight off-notes. Overall though this is a landmark production, giving more than Anderson’s Blanche an agency and power to stamp it as a collective tragedy.