Benedict Andrews’s A Streetcar Named Desire, the latest instalment of the National Theatre At Home series, is nothing short of a spectacle. Starring Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby, this modern take on the timeless classic by Tennessee Williams is a masterclass of everything that contemporary theatre stands for.
The play follows Blanche Dubois (Anderson) who, following a string of losses and misfortunes, goes to visit her sister Stella (Kirby). Unfortunately, she finds herself in regular conflict with Stella’s husband, Stanley (Foster), and the time spent at her sister’s apartment is characterised by Stanley’s attempts to uncover the truth about Blanche’s life, alongside Blanche’s own deterioration as she revisits past trauma and abuses alcohol.
The stage is in the round, with a revolve causing the stage to slowly rotate for a large portion of the production- perhaps a reflection of the circular habits of Blanche’s sexual psyche. It is through this motif that Blanche’s inability to hide from her past is mirrored; the actors have nowhere to hide from the audience.
Stella’s apartment is skeletal, with only frames to imitate walls, which makes the stage entirely open which allows for every detail to be seen. The interesting set is coupled with a unique technical element: loud music plays during scene transitions, which often reflect the scene prior, maintaining the intensity following confrontation with rock music or evoking intrigue after revelations and plot twists. A huge blast of music, and drastic shift in harsh lighting, keeps us in the moment as the scenes change over, meaning the intensity of the show never falters at any point – a feat that is incredibly difficult to achieve.
Anderson’s portrayal of Blanche Dubois is utter perfection. She masterfully embodies Dubois with a sublime accent and seamless control of her conflicting emotions throughout the production. Witnessing her slow unhinge makes anyone watching feel immense sympathy, but Anderson is equally able to make the audience laugh during the play’s moments of levity, demonstrating her versatility and how brilliantly she suits the role of Blanche.
In direct contrast to the fragility and femininity of Blanche, Ben Foster dominates every scene he is in. Tough, tyrannical and terrifying, Stanley instils fear in all who are in his presence, whilst Stella- helpless and stuck in the middle of her sister and husband- is stuck in the middle of a whirlwind of emotion. This intense cresendo leads to the emotional and atmospherical overload that establishes A Streetcar Named Desire as such a memorable, impactful and classic production.
Although I wish that I could have seen this production live, National Theatre At Home’s filmed format enhances the theatre experience in such a special way; it allows for all of the show’s details to be noticed and provides a sense of accessibility for those who would not have been able to get to the theatre to see A Streetcar Named Desire, even without the COVID-19 outbreak. Seeing this live, on the other hand, would have allowed the iconic assault scene to be much more impactful, which is what I found myself longing for while watching.
Blanche exclaims, in one of the most famous lines from the script, “I don’t want realism, I want magic!”; this production was theatrical magic.
Words by Sam Hewitson.