×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’

With:
Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, Corey Johnson, Vanessa Kirby, Clare Burt, Lachele Carl, Branwell Donaghey, Otto Farrant, Nicholas Gecks, Troy Glasgow, Stephanie Jacob, Claire Prempeh.

Two trajectories determine Benedict Andrews’ in-the-round production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”: the tragic arc of Gillian Anderson’s remarkably vivid Blanche, and that of the near-permanently revolving set. The latter creates a striking metaphor for Blanche’s whirling state of mind, but as it slowly wheels around, you sense the two are somewhat at war. Although the movement’s centrifugal force spins Blanche’s thoughts outward, what’s missing is centripetal energy, the inward force that would focus audiences on dramatic details. A great production makes audiences feel complicit in Blanche’s story; here, we’re merely impressed voyeurs.

Ever since Hitchcock chased Cary Grant with a cropduster in “North by Northwest,” directors have been attempting claustrophobia in wide-open spaces. Andrews is no exception. Set designer Magda Willi’s cramped Elysian Fields apartment is a long, steel rectangle of an open set with no walls, bare bulbs and minimal furniture, almost all of which is entirely white. A flimsy curtain, as is traditional, separates the rooms, but tradition stops right there.

Out go the expected period details and in comes a contemporary setting complete with costumes whose retro styling evokes the mid-20th century, when the play was written. Into all this steps Anderson’s fragile but confident Blanche, and from the moment she seizes on the alcohol and announces that she’s got to keep hold of herself, the set begins to move.

In theory, the slow turning of the set allows no one to find themself in a bad seat. In practice, it often means characters at either end of the set drift frustratingly out of focus. To counteract that, the actors need vocal weight to command the space, which is where Anderson — and particularly Ben Foster, otherwise effectively brutish as Stanley — come up short. In only his second listed stage role, Foster has a well-built body covered in tattoos, making him completely believable as a thuggish ex-Army type. But whenever he’s under pressure, his voice tightens, and when he’s at his most dominant physically, he sounds weak.

The secret of the play is that the least showy role, the tentative Mitch, is a gift for a good actor. Corey Johnson clearly knows that, and is particularly fine, shambling about as if carrying too much weight, at home at the poker games and just childlike enough to be pitiful without slipping into mawkishness.

The relationship between Blanche’s sister, Stella (Vanessa Kirby), and neighbor Eunice (Clare Burt) is unusually well drawn — thanks to the energy of Andrews’ direction, their friendship feels properly lived-in — but until the fail-safe upset of the final sequence of events, this Stella and Blanche seem remote from one another, more well-disposed cousins than sisters.

That’s partly because of the directorial decision to allow Anderson to display so many elements of the character. It’s a hugely impressive performance that begins with the actress birdlike and teetering in on high heels; this Blanche is as determined as she is fragile, and for the next three-and-a-half hours she seesaws between those two states. But encouraging Anderson to let everyone see the heightened nature of Blanche’s sexual longing — i.e., turning the subtext into text — makes Stella look foolishly blind.

Similar overstatement is present elsewhere, most notably in the music. There’s moody sax in the writing, but the lengthy transitions are heavily self-conscious thanks to modish blasts of heavy rock guitar or snatches of ’50s vocalists or Chris Issak’s cliched croon from “Wicked Game” (which, coming hard on the heels of her capitulation to Mitch — “Sometime’s — there’s God — so quickly” — actually deflates the preceding scene).

The oddest element of Andrews’ production, following his more radical and exciting staging of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” is its stylistic inconsistency. It winningly inhabits a world of heightened emotion and sexuality not out of place in German theater (where Andrews often works), yet when it comes to actual bodies and sex, Stanley keeps his underwear on when changing into the famous silk pajamas, and Blanche is clothed in the onstage bath. Such primness is out of kilter with both play and production.

The show’s intensity has won it rave local reviews across the board, but the physical requirements of the staging will create problems for producers seeking to transfer it. The worldwide NT Live screenings (set for Sept. 16) may be the ideal way to see it. Relieved of the distractions of the turntable, audiences can feast in close-up on the strengths of Anderson’s minutely calibrated performance.

Popular on Variety

London Theater Review: Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

Young Vic; 505 seats; £35, $59.50 top. Opened, reviewed July 28, 2014. Running time: 3 HOURS, 25 MIN.

Production: A Young Vic and Joshua Andrews presentation of a play in two acts by Tennessee Williams.

Creative: Directed by Benedict Andrews. Sets, Magda Willi; costumes, Victoria Behr; lighting, Jon Clark; sound, Paul Arditti; music, Alex Baranowski; production stage manager, Laura Flowers.

Cast: Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster, Corey Johnson, Vanessa Kirby, Clare Burt, Lachele Carl, Branwell Donaghey, Otto Farrant, Nicholas Gecks, Troy Glasgow, Stephanie Jacob, Claire Prempeh.

More Legit

  • David-Alan-Grier-Blair-Underwood

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood to Star in 'A Soldier's Play' on Broadway

    David Alan Grier and Blair Underwood will star in a Broadway production of Pulitzer-Prize winning drama “A Soldier’s Play.” The play, written by Charles Fuller, is set in 1944 and follows a murder mystery centered around the death of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (played by Grier) who is found on a Louisiana army base. [...]

  • The Inheritance review

    'The Inheritance' Announces Broadway Cast

    After an Olivier-winning run in London, “The Inheritance” is gearing up for its Broadway debut. The two-part epic has set the cast for its transfer from the West End to the Great White Way. John Benjamin Hickey, Paul Hilton, Samuel H. Levine, Andrew Burnap and Kyle Soller are among the cast members reprising their roles [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Announces 2020 National Tour

    ‘Hadestown’, the eight-time Tony award winning Broadway musical, is set for a national tour in 2020. The show will stop in more than 30 cities including Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, and more. The musical is a stage adaptation of the Greek myths of Orpheus and Eurydice and King Hades and his wife [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Listen: Why Jake Gyllenhaal Is His 'Best Self' in the Theater

    Looking for the best possible version of Jake Gyllenhaal? You’ll find it onstage, according to the actor himself. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I am my best self when I’m working in the theater,” Gyllenhaal said on the latest episode Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast, on which he appeared with Carrie Cracknell, the director of [...]

  • Photo: Jeremy Daniel

    'The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical' Gets Broadway Run

    “The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical” is Broadway bound. The musical adaptation of the franchise about a teenager who discovers he’s the son of Poseidon hits the Great White Way on Sept. 20 ahead of an Oct. 16 opening night. It comes on the heels of an extensive, nationwide tour that took the show [...]

  • Tom Sturridge Jake Gyllenhaal

    Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge Celebrate 'Sea Wall/A Life' With Star-Studded Opening Night

    A star-studded audience looked on as Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge returned to the stage for their double monologue performance in “Sea Wall/A Life.” Theater-goers and celebs including Anne Hathaway, Tom Hiddleston and John Mulaney gathered in Manhattan’s Hudson Theatre for opening night, celebrating a show tackling grief, birth and death through the eyes of [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content