I’m working on a longish thing about Jamie Lloyd’s quite brilliant Richard III and won’t have time for a proper write-up of this much-anticipated Streetcar Named Desire (starring Gillian Anderson). But here’s a brief run-down of what I thought worked (little) and what to my mind ultimately made this a production that didn’t really go anywhere or do much with or for the play.

– I liked the rotating set; there was something inexorable about its constant movement that set the tone for the show, and the relatively subtle changes in the speed at which it spun seemed to create a kind of non-textual, non-performer-driven rhythm that I appreciated.

– Accents: ah well, if you do them, I suppose you do them. To my ear at least, they were fine, but Gillian Anderson did sound notably different, deeper inside her accent (if you will), than her UK colleagues. From the start, that put her on a different plane — which is fine for Blanche, I think.

– But I did have two major-ish problems with her performance: for one thing, there was a kind of upper limit Anderson wasn’t willing to go beyond — when she throws up in the sink early on, and then later, when she again throws up when Stanley gives her the bus ticket, the action was a mere sketch, just a gesture at what the character experiences at that point. Acting with the hand break on. From a character perspective, it struck me that she didn’t, or wasn’t willing to, let Blanche’s mask slip often and decisively enough — which meant that it began to feel like Gillian Anderson’s rather the character’s surface as the play continued. On the other hand, I thought her Blanche was pitched at such a relative high level of barely-contained hysteria from the start that when things REALLY hit the fan towards the end, she had nowhere left to go — there was just no emotional or energetic place left to take her Blanche without going completely over the top. And that, too, then made the hysteria feel less than grounded in anything — more a performative claim about psychology than a performance of what an actual psychological breakdown might look and feel like. That’s partly on her (perhaps a screen actor’s lack of instincts for sustaining a 3-hour-long performance?), but mainly on Benedict Andrews.

– The biggest problem for me, though, wasn’t so much GA’s performance as what felt like a total lack of chemistry, good or bad, between her and Ben Foster’s Stanley. Partly, that’s a bit of a dramaturgical issue: there’s a rather long spell when they have no scenes together, so whatever tension is built up early on kind of dissipates. But when things come to a head in the scene that takes place while Stella is in hospital, the lack of sustained tension becomes a real problem. This should be a riveting, terrifying, chilling scene — and for me at least, it wasn’t. Partly perhaps because it was played quite slowly, but mainly, I think, because these two characters didn’t really feel like they’d had a “date from the beginning” — of any kind, whether a date to fight to the death or one to have sex. It also didn’t help that Stanley had moments when he sounded (SOUNDED, not looked!) an awful lot like a slightly less high-pitched Rob Ford. That’s an image that’s tough to get out of your head once it’s settled in.

– On the whole, this felt like a production that wanted to be relevant and contemporary (the set certainly said as much), but in its means seemed oddly limited, and in its dramaturgy got sidetracked and completely lost focus in the last third. As a result, I was really unclear as to what the show was meant to do or say — about Williams’ play, about these characters, or about life.

Now, Benedict Andrews, it turns out, has had a go at Streetcar before, as Peter Boenisch pointed out on Facebook. And at first blush, it looks like he was working in a much more exciting register then, five years ago, at the Schaubuehne in Berlin. Lots of photos of that are here. If the pictures are any indication, the Schaubuehne production had the visceral, raw energy that the Young Vic show lacked. And based on this visual evidence at least, it seems like Andrews back then thrived on a commitment to a kind of vigorous, uncompromising theatricality that wasn’t in evidence to anything like the same degree in London.

But pictures can lie. Reading the (many) reviews of the Berlin production gives a rather different picture, and one that strikingly resembles what I saw at the Young Vic. The Schaubuehne set also rotated throughout the evening — but that’s a superficial parallel. More remarkably, a number of critics took Andrews to task for leaving his Blanche without anyone to play with, for not building any kind of psychological or theatrical tension between her and Stanley, or Stella, or Mitch. One critic makes one of my points almost verbatim: there’s a quick build up of erotic tension between Stanley and Blanche which almost immediately disappears and remains forgotten for most of the play, this critic writes — about the Berlin show in 2009, although the exact same thing happened again in London in 2014. And then as now, it seems there was little indication what might have interested Andrews about the play, or what point he was trying to make by staging it now.

Rather interestingly, then, perhaps this Streetcar is a case-study in how two productions of the same play, using what look like quite dramatically different theatrical and visual vocabularies, can still end up reproducing the same problems, leaving the same gaps, and suffering from the same conceptual shortcomings.

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