A Streetcar Named Desire

A revival both stylish and 'Street' smart

August 7, 2014

Young Vic, London SE1

Gillian Anderson in Streetcar

Gillian Anderson in Streetcar

As Blanche Dubois, Gillian Anderson - a star whose career was defined by the unflappably cool Scully in The X-Files - turns in a superb performance of brittle fragility that captures the full monumental tragedy of Tennessee Williams's heroine.

This the latest in a series of classic plays at the Young Vic that have been liberated from what Australian director Benedict Andrews calls "chocolate box" naturalism.

One of them was Andrews's revival of Three Sisters which was memorably - for some, unforgettably - set in modern Russia with a soundtrack that featured Nirvana. His revival of Streetcar (1947) is also a modern take with bursts of exhilarating rock and episodes of jazz that cools the New Orleans heat.

The most startling feature of Magda Willi's design of the cramped flat, in which the play is set, is not the Ikea-type white furniture, nor the absence of walls.

It's rather that from the moment uninvited visitor Blanche knocks back her brother-in-law's whisky, the room slowly revolves and never stops.

So we view the rising tension between Blanche and her sister Stella's tattooed pit-bull of a husband Stanley Kowalski, like nosy neighbours, through the runners of an outside stairway or from behind the bathroom's shower curtain.

The sense is that actors and audience are never fully at ease. Whether the play has particularly benefited from the 21st-century setting is hard to say. The same tension may have been achieved if the flat was the standard shadowy abode from the 1940s. But it certainly hasn't been diminished. The point of Andrews's production is that, for those living in the apartment, there is nowhere to hide - from each other, or from the audience.

The downside is that sometimes lines of Williams's delicious dialogue are lost if the southern drawl happens to be directed away from where you are seated.

Still, by the time Anderson's Blanche declares that she has always relied on the kindness of strangers, we have come to know the haunted, vulnerable girl beneath the unbearable snob and realise that her lies are not deceptions but merely declarations of the way life should be.

American actor Ben Foster is terrific as the coiled Kowalski. So is Vanessa Kirby as his wife who, much to older sister Blanche's revulsion, has happily settled for a life that, though poor, satisfies desire.

Last updated: 4:16pm, August 7 2014