Saturday, October 04, 2014

The dark march toward whatever it is we're approaching...

A few weeks back I had my second NT Live experience, and oddly enough, neither have been National Theatre productions.  Go figure.

Another not-too-odd thing is that both times the production had been in a small venue with a big star in the lead: Tom Hiddlestone in CORIOLANUS at the Donmar and now Gillian Anderson in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at the Young Vic.

What is a guy to do?  Stand on the street queuing for possibly non-existent returns - or sit in a comfy seat watching it with a bag of popcorn?  Well yes I know it should be queuing but I am SO aged Constant Reader.  So it was with a guilty heart that we went to the Curzon Victoria to have a gander at the Young Vic's acclaimed revival of STREETCAR, the fastest-selling show in it's history.

First off, let me say that for a newly-built cinema, it would appear that the last thing they want you to do at the Curzon Victoria is see a film there with more space given over to the design of the foyer and bar areas - bizarrely though, at the play's interval the bar staff could not cope.  Odd that eh?

My jury is still out on the whole "live theatre in cinemas" thing, it's like having a shower while standing outside the curtain - you can hear it, you can experience what's going on but you are not immersed.

Especially when the production you are seeing has a site specific design as this one does.  Australian director Benedict Andrews, has for no real purpose that I can see, updated Tennessee Williams' magnificent play to "modern dress" and has it play on Magda Willi's white frame set which slowly rotates during the course of the play.  I am sure it makes sense sitting in the Young Vic, making you feel you are circling the action, but it really makes no sense when you are relying on static cameras to convey the action to you - time and again, a key moment was ruined by the actor being suddenly obscured by a post, doorknob or a door-frame.

The lighting was also bright white light, giving the impression of the characters being seen almost under laboratory conditions.  My main complaint with Andrews' approach was rather than bringing anything revelatory to the text it just underlined, highlighted and rang a handbell over anything and everything obvious.  Williams' poetry was subsumed by the "look-at-me, look-at-me" obviousness.  It ties with Trevor Nunn's misjudged National Theatre production as the worst I have seen of one of my favourite plays.

As with every stage STREETCAR I have seen, the actor playing Stanley just didn't cut it.  Paul Herzberg in 1984, Iain Glen in 2002 and Elliot Cowan in 2009 have all failed to make anything of the role.  I really don't know what the problem is, it never seems to be a problem for the actor playing Mitch or the actresses playing Blanche or Stella.  Are they all trying so hard not to be Brando that it leaves them with nowhere to go?

Ben Foster certainly brought a different attitude to the role - short and pugnacious - but his performance seemed to slide off Williams' character like sweat.  Andrews' vision of the character seemed to have him take his trousers off a lot which wasn't too upsetting for the viewer but there really didn't seem to be any other idea from him of his vision for the character.

I liked Corey Johnson as Mitch.  It's a wonderful role and he made the most of the buffonish comedy it allows but also the desperation that hides behind most of the character's actions.  It's a shame that he seemed to underplay Mitch's confrontation with Blanche.  He was easily out-acted in the scene by Gillian Anderson and it's a scene that needs to be equally balanced and here it didn't have the punch that Rob Ashford's production did at the Donmar - see my review of that one here.

I also liked Vanessa Kirby as Stella, the younger but more grounded DuBois sister.  She had an easy naturalism and you really felt her confusion at being torn between her sister and her husband.  Along with all the others, sadly she had to act in Victoria Behr's deliberately ugly costumes.

However the real reason for going to see this was to experience Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois and, despite all that I disliked about the production, she was worth it.  They really didn't need all that white light as she BLAZED through the play.

She seized every nuance of Williams' text and although she might not be my favourite Blanche DuBois she gave a performance of unrelenting power.  Funny, tragic, grating, touching, haunted and ultimately haunting, it was an astonishingly brave performance that will live in the memory for a long time.

Every so often one of her line readings would break through the screen - and Andrews' bloody obvious trops - and Williams' wonderful poetic imagery would make me gasp.  Her performance was the only thing that made me wish I had seen this production actually in the audtorium to really feel the power.

O has let it be known that he never wants to see another Tennessee Williams revival so Constant Reader, keep your diaries clear.

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