Tennessee Williams marked the post-war transitions of America’s South from hierarchies and repressions to the awkward integration of immigrants and confused values of a society in flux. A Streetcar Named Desire at London’s Young Vic amplifies the contemporary echoes in a production which brings to life the epic clash of the raucous Kowalski household and the seething repressions of its nemesis, Blanche DuBois.
Gillian Anderson is a bold casting in the lead role: an actress who excelled at exuding neuralgic modernity in her television role in The X-Files, she has since had as many erratic reincarnations as Blanche has had pre-prandial bourbon shots.
In the Young Vic’s production, she pays off the risk handsomely, with a combination of louche physical charm, drink-sodden denial and a teetering self-esteem that is as maddening as it is pitiable.
The three-way horror show unfolds from the moment when the dispossessed schoolteacher sways uncertainly into the New Orleans tenement inhabited by her pliant sister Stella and boorish, insecure Stanley. The Australian director Benedict Andrews’s production eschews the southern charm poured over so many Streetcar productions — all is open to our gaze, from the sex and violence to the artful voyeurs of the neighbourhood observing the quarrels with a shrug. In Magda Willi’s sparse design, the stage is a boxy, rotating block with metal stairways and all the romance of a badly-built social housing estate.
True, we lose some of the period feeling. The New Orleans apartment is so carelessly basic that when Blanche adds a red paper lampshade it evokes atavistic cries of appreciation from Stella — a moment when we see her a refugee from the same world of disappeared grandeur as her bombastic sister.
The five-star reviews have gone Anderson’s way, not least because the role of Blanche requires so much verbal heavy-lifting — she speaks for a solid half of a production lasting well over three hours and at a soliloquy length to test the most fluent Shakespearean. But I was just as impressed with the judicious feeling Vanessa Kirby brings to Stella, played here as a woman who makes a grim life liveable, even if the compromises are ghastly. Besides the terror and the pity, there is, thankfully, comedy. Anderson’s arched eyebrow and incredulous response to being asked to partake in household chores have all the southern majesty of Jerry Hall disdaining to empty the bins.
Kowalski (Ben Foster) is as meaty and wagering as the part demands, a muscle-bound idiot-savant who can appall us by striking his pregnant wife while drunk, and then articulate a scorched nobility, responding to the taunt of “Polack” with a rattled dignity: “People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. What I am is a one hundred per cent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth.”
Without doubt, here is a Streetcar that lingers in the mind, in all its impossibility and unhappiness. It gets a screening across the country (and abroad) via the excellent National Theatre Live on September 16, so if you can’t make it to the Deep South of SE1, do catch it at the cinema.
You can do likewise with the National’s summer hit, Medea, on September 4, with Helen McCrory in the role of literature’s premier child-murderess. The run was unsatisfyingly short but a quality rendition of a hard play to like. We first hear Medea screaming offstage at being ditched by Jason (Danny Sapani), “a he-devil” played as a silky opportunist. Carrie Cracknell’s production gives the character a human face as a woman whose vengeance has been in part constructed by the unpitying world around her.
McCrory’s Medea is by turns irrational, noble and desperate, emptied of pity and feeling. The truly outstanding aspect of the production is the slowing down of movement in the final scenes (outstanding chor-eography by Lucy Guerin) to evince a balletic world of shadows and forests, echoing the darker recesses of the character’s disturbed mind. Like Blanche, Medea has to make us believe that madness is a fit response to her predicament. McCrory leaves us with shaken moral certainties and a fraught empathy.
The only way to go from Greek tragedy at this pitch is to the sunny side of the street. Even so, your critic embarked on an outing to the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Forbidden Broadway with the trepidation of one who has a limited tolerance for musicals, comedy revues and any combination of the two.
Fortunately, this deft tapestry of skits guarantees squawks of mirth from the first minute to the curtain call. A cast of just four — Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis-accompanied by a demonically energetic music-hall pianist, parodies stars, flops, hoofers and impresarios with verve and bite.
In the best of the recurring sketches, the giddy revolve of Les Misérables is presented simply by the actors shuffling dead-eyed in a circle, while adapting those famous Kretzmer lyrics to reflect the tedium of a hit grown stale: “The only show in town with its own pension plan.” A shouty Miss Saigon gets a big fat slap, with toy helicopters, increasingly incredible happenstances and a resigned chorus: “We’ve become/Vietnumb.”
Forbidden Broadway started out as an in-joke in the early 1980s and the targets of its ire, from greedy producers to the corporate takeover of musicals and grinding homogeneity of style in commercial theatre, still hold good. It takes some brave potshots at the famous. Sam Mendes’s soulless Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is royally mocked: “Come with us/to a world/of no imagination,” croon the cast with sweet savagery. The coldly commercial calculation behind The Book of Mormon gets quite a swipe too.
But Forbidden Broadway is saved from being merely sardonic by a love of the business it sends up. Liza Minnelli’s hyper-activity and near-miss high notes are parodied with bright affection, as are Sondheim’s convoluted librettos in a thesaurus-laden tribute, “Into the Words”.
The Menier deserves a standing ovation for making its niche of intelligent musical theatre so consistently engaging. Forbidden Broadway is transferring to the West End shortly. I hope it feels as joyous on a bigger stage. Like all forbidden fruit from the Adam and Eve show onwards, I confidently predict that there will be a taste for it.