Three-and-a-half hours in a small, dark and not entirely comfortable auditorium is a big ask to make, even of the most committed theatregoer.
But when you are offering Tennessee Williams’s peerlessly intense and brooding classic A Streetcar Named Desire starring the wonderful Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois we might forgive it. Throw in the fact that it is at possibly the most dynamic production space in London at the moment and has in Benedict Andrews one of our most original theatre directors….well it’s an ask that many fans were happy to answer.
In fact, tickets were sold out long before last night’s press opening of Andrews’ production, which once again showcases his daring approach to established classics.
The man who brought us the superb Grunge music revival of Chekhov's Three Sisters two years ago at this same venue now updates Williams's 1949 play to the modern day and washes his production in what is now his trademark range of eclectic music, which here punctuates (and sometimes, it feels, punches) key scenes. He also plays the action in hot drawly Louisiana on a revolve, meaning that the tiny ground floor flat where the elegant-seeming Blanche descends on her sister Stella and her husband Stanley has every nook of its cheap and plain furnishings examined by the audience at every moment.
It is a neat idea, one which means that Blanche’s suitcase (sitting on her fold out bed) is always visible, reminding us of her peripatetic state and the total lack of privacy in this world. But there is a practical flaw as it is also means that the action sometimes moves away from you at pivotal moments, meaning that you are often staring up the wrong end of a kitchen unit when the intense drama is playing (sometimes with a bit of a muffle) far away. It is not a total success.
What do triumph are the performances. Anderson, like the great actresses who have played Blanche in the past, tugs at the emotional heartstrings, delving into the profound sadness of this desperate washed-up woman right up until the final heart-breaking finale when she is carted off to a mental hospital.
There is manipulativeness at the heart of her fantasy life, but Anderson never allows us to forget the well of despair and loneliness from which it springs.
As Stella’s rough-neck husband Stanley Kowalski, Ben Foster (perhaps best known for playing Russell Corwin in HBO’s Six Feet Under) is stepping into some big shoes (the role still really feels like it is Marlon Brando’s and always will be). And while the actor packs the granite-hewn punch of Stanley's anger, hurt and confusion at the new arrival and the impact it has on his life, his is an oddly unsympathetic performance which draws more enjoyment than we're perhaps used to from Stella's plight.
Yes, this is a Streetcar which is much more interested in the women and Vanessa Kirby, who starred in Andrews’ acclaimed production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the same venue two years ago, is a peerless Stella, more front and centre than in other productions and whose gradual awakening to the failings of her own marriage, as well as the deep hurt that her sister has buried inside her, is beautifully and skilfully teased out.
Runs from July 23 to September 19 2014