There is a certain intimacy to watching live theater, one that can often refuse to translate to cinema. Under Benedict Andrews’ direction, National Theatre Live: A Streetcar Named Desire, the intimacy is certainly maintained from the theater and into the cinema space. Seeing this play performed in both the theatrical and cinematic context is a real treat.
Tennessee Williams’ play is the story of Blanche DuBois who arrives in New Orleans to stay with her sister Stella in the sticky, two-room apartment Stella shares with her husband Stanley Kowalski . Blanche (Gillian Anderson), and Stella (Vanessa Kirby), were brought up with all the decorum associated with the American South, a lifestyle Stella has distanced herself from to live with her working class husband Stanley (Ben Foster). Blanche has experienced a certain ‘fall from grace’, she has lost her job and her family home, her sanity is teetering, and she turns to Stella for comfort and strength.
Blanche’s presence in the Kowalski home is a source of tension for Stanley and Stella, fuelling their already volatile relationship. Stanley has little time for Blanche’s eccentricities or delusions, and Stella’s loyalty and obligation are tested.
The set of this production is a single rectangular stage, simple frames indicate where apartment walls would be. The cell-like structure of the set design highlight the intense proximity in which the characters are living – Stanley and Stella are separated from Blanche by merely a curtain. This tight set gives a real sense of closeness, of the heat and humidity of New Orleans and of the tension experienced by the cast.
The audience within the theatre is seated around the stage in a circular design, the cinema audience are able to feel like an extension of this intimate space. The set itself slowly rotates as the cast perform, and cameras are positioned carefully so as to highlight this slow turning space.
Anderson’s performance as Blanche is very much reminiscent of Cate Blanchett’s recent turn in Blue Jasmine. Anderson also seems to be channeling the more deranged of Bette Davis’ roles; her Blanche is decidedly unhinged; hysterical and manic, her physical performance is captivating.
Ben Foster plays Stanley Kowalski, his interpretation of the role is one of a man consistently poised to erupt. Stanley frequently does erupt, enraged by Blanche and Stella, resorting to violence. Foster is supremely masculine in his portrayal of Stanley, his relationship with Stella is primal and fraught with lust.
The dynamic between Anderson, Foster and Kirby – Blanche, Stanley and Stella – is intense, to say the least. This production seemingly resets the play in a present day, and heavy drinking serves to excite the already fraught household.
Essentially this is wonderful theatre and it translates very well to the cinema screen. This interpretation was at times laugh-out-loud funny, with Anderson and co. bringing some slight cheekiness to their roles, while still having all the elegance expected in theatre. Being able to see this play, beamed to our cinema screens from across the globe, feel very much like the privilege it is.