by Hazen Cuyler
Williams, Kazan, Brando, Leigh: unforgettable figures in modern theater history. The play classified Tennessee Williams as a great American writer. The Elia Kazan-directed film skyrocketed Brando to fame while simultaneously ushering in an awareness of new American acting methods. Regardless of any subsequent productions, the 1951 film is sealed in modern culture’s collective memory. Nearly 70 years later, The National Theatre’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire is streaming on YouTube until May 28. Directed by Benedict Andrews and starring Gillian Anderson, A Streetcar Named Desire reminds us to care for others more vulnerable than ourselves.
Stella is pregnant. Stanley is a brute. And they’re married and crazy about each other. They live in a small one-bedroom apartment in New Orleans. At the edge of financial and mental collapse, Blanche DuBois arrives at Stella’s doorstep (via a streetcar named “Desire”). Blanche is Stella’s ineffably nervous sister who’s just lost their family’s estate—a Mississippi plantation called Belle Reve (“Beautiful Dream”). Blanche has arrived unannounced to stay in their tiny apartment—in New Orleans, in the unbearably hot summer—for an unspecified amount of time.
Director Benedict Andrews further accentuates the highs and lows of this unstable community by intensifying Streetcar’s alcoholism and violence. During a poker game, a blind-drunk Stanley smashes a radio and punches Stella in the face. Bloodied and crying, she and Blanche escape to a neighboring apartment while the men restrain Stanley and abandon him, unconscious, in the bathtub. Reawakening alone and realizing what he’s done, he howls for his wife, pleading for forgiveness. In the film, Brando’s harrowing bellow, “Stella!” is among the most famous moments in film history. Fortunately, Ben Foster provides a refreshing and even more debilitated Stanley. Stumbling out from his watery tub, Mr. Foster’s reeling body crawls across the outside pavement. Snot and spit and tears dribble down his face. Aside from Under Armour boxers, he is naked and howls like a 10-year-old boy encountering horrific despair. After only momentary uncertainty, Stella returns to her lover.
At the bottom of a fire escape, Vanessa Kirby’s Stella meets her pitiful husband. Desperately, she oscillates between logic, physical pain, emotional shock and ferocious sexual desire. Like a snake, Stanley lurches and clings to his wife. Ms. Kirby’s Stella battles him off, feigning resentment. Grasping and pulling at skin, they burst through their home and to their bed in a flight of passion. While in bed, Stanley rises to his feet, Stella lying under him, and walks past her, leaving her abandoned body to writhe under hot red lights as the turntable stage revolves into forever.
On Blanche’s birthday, Stella unexpectedly goes into labor, leaving her sister intoxicated and alone within their shadowy apartment. After learning of Blanche’s scandalous past, Stanley’s friend, Mitch (Corey Johnson), shows up drunk. “I won’t cross examine the witness. I’ll just pretend I don’t notice anything different about you,” she says before gripping her ears: “There’s that music again . . . ” Gillian Anderson’s tormented body doubles over and her frail arm reaches into black distant nothingness. Her thick tongued voice, trembling from strain, continues onward. Though destabilized by intense effects from alcohol and stress, Blanche’s vocabulary, speech pattern and congenial disposition remain intact. Ms. Anderson unifies Williams’s language with Mr. Andrews’ direction and reveals ingrained and lasting social habits operating within the individual.
Magda Willi’s set drops us on the sidelines of a modern-day rotating IKEA showroom. We don’t get the dark and dreary, dirty, makeshift, intimate home from Kazan’s film. Here, we have an exposed apartment framework without walls, fastened upon a never-ending turntable. Ms. Willi’s materials express the upper-low class Amazon age: mass produced, clean and white, uniform and cheap.
Bred from an extinct, genial South, the fragile Blanche DuBois cannot survive in today’s polarized world. Hopelessly preyed on by beasts, we watch her gradual destruction. Director Benedict Andrews, with the help of an inspired Gillian Anderson, heightens Tennessee Williams’ more desperate and arresting moments. Late in the play Blanche states, “Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable. It is the one unforgivable thing in my opinion and it is the one thing of which I have never, never been guilty.” Great plays survive throughout time because their lessons have not yet been learned. In one of history’s greatest plays, we watch a gentle, though frightened, human being desperate for warmth, flutter like a moth toward flame before meeting her end.
The National Theatre’s Production of A Streetcar Named Desire streams on YouTube through May 28. 2hrs 50mins. with a very brief intermission. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJEpYaD3yTw
Photos: Alistair Muir & Johan Persson, except where indicated