In A Streetcar Named Desire, there’s Blanche and there’s Stanley, and there’s little else that matters. So the first thing to mention about the Young Vic’s 2014 production, now at St. Ann’s Warehouse, is the casting: Gillian Anderson of “The X-Files” opposite Ben Foster. The match-up is deliberately unequal: Foster is 12 years Anderson’s junior, and director Benedict Andrews never lets us forget it. Whereas the 47-year old Emmy-winning actress exudes life experience (of all kinds…) in her role, Foster’s Stanley behaves like a toddler: he whines the famous “Stella!” cry on all fours, arching his back, in a little fit of anger. Though these two may have a date with destiny, there is no spark between them. This proves to be the best thing Andrews could do with the play and its famous iterations, however, by giving us a Blanche we can respect and a Stanley we cannot.
From the moment Anderson makes her entrance, in a smart gold sheath suit with matching stilettos, sunglasses and luggage, we know we’re in the presence of a master dissembler. By the time she’s downed her fourth shot in Stella’s Ikea furnished studio apartment, after unceremoniously dispatching a prying Eunice, it’s clear she’s no pushover either. Until the final scene when Blanche is escorted to the psychiatric ward, there are few hints of her impending delirium other than those strains of the Varsouviana that haunt her as she tells her story to Mitch.
When Blanche writes her ridiculous telegram to Shep Huntleigh in Scene 5, Anderson, all business with her reading glasses perched on her nose, makes it seem like the most logical plan in the world. She gives Stanley a lawyerly dressing down when he inquires about the paperwork on Belle Reve and is always dressed up (marvelously costumed by Victoria Behr) to face the world. Every time she takes one of her baths, she emerges from the tub in a slip and heels: no nudity or its metaphorical fragility. Having managed her dying parents, the estate, its creditors, and her ruined dreams, Anderson’s Blanche is an impressively strong woman in a man’s world that is built to destroy her.
Foster’s Stanley, however, doesn’t seem to have what it takes to stand up to her. He’s testy, unpredictable and in khaki cargo pants and a buzz cut, with his Army dog tags still hanging around his neck, he exudes more PTSD than alpha male superiority. When Blanche arrives, he gives an annoyed kick to her Gucci bag to express his displeasure and he comes off equally impotent in his rants about the Napoleonic Code. In Scene 4, arriving unnoticed on Blanche’s devastating assessment of him, he stares unbelievingly at so much venom, then exits with his tail between his legs. As for the rape scene, it’s a non-starter: Blanche has drunk herself into a comatose stupor, leaving Stanley to tentatively poke about in her taffeta underskirts before the scene changes.
Williams’ script is laden with symbolism and atmosphere, from the “jungle music” that is meant to underscore Stanley’s primitivism, to the handful of portentous minor characters who scurry in the shadows. Aided by Jon Clark’s stark lighting and Magda Willi’s rotating set, in which the Kowalski’s spartan apartment seems to spin like a slide under a microscope, Andrews largely ignores those atmospheric touches to zoom in on the residents of 632 Elysian Fields. These also include a girlish Stella – Vanessa Kirby in white Keds and tiny teeshirt dresses – whose relationship with Stanley is never wholly convincing, as well as the randy couple formed by neighbors Steve and Eunice (Mark Letheren and Sarah-Jane Potts), whose random gropings appear designed to fill in the sexual tension that is lost between Blanche and Stanley. The red paper lantern Blanche hangs is very noticeably the only concession to fantasy here (if you don’t count the British cast members’ exaggerated “suth’n” accents that have a tendency to slip jarringly into Cockney).
But perhaps this Streetcar is meant to be of a timeless, placeless sort. It certainly finds new and welcome readings in Williams’ classic, and this is what the best adaptations do. I’ve seen more aesthetically modern Streetcar’s (Krzysztof Warlkowski’s, for example, with Isabelle Huppert), but Andrews’ version seems ripe for our times, in this bizarre election season of a Kowalskian bully who is sure to portray his adversary as a crazy dame with a seamy past. Andrews and Anderson keep a tight hand on the madness card, but they play, unflinchingly, the woman card, and it feels like Williams would agree.