Is there room in that hot, sweaty, studio-flat for more than one great performance? Gillian Anderson runs away with it in this, Benedict Andrews’ brilliant, sultry, disorientating, modern dress production. There are strong supporting turns from Vanessa Kirby and Ben Foster but Anderson owns the stage with a captivating interpretation of the fantasist Blanche Dubois. Blanche and her younger sister Stella haven’t seen each other for ten years. After an upper-middle class upbringing Stella moved to the grimy industrial French quarter of New Orleans to marry Polish factory worker Stanley Kowalski, while the demure Blanche has been working as an English teacher ever since. Now, for reasons that are unclear, Blanche has sought out her sister. “I won’t stay long,” she promises, unconvincingly.
In a tiny flat, in suffocating proximity to Stella and her husband, she gets a close up view of the volatility of their relationship. Her presence in the house aggravates Stanley, but in a sense she isn’t present, occupying instead a soft-furnished fantasy world.
Stella and Stanley’s marriage is driven by a sexual intensity that regularly spills over into violence. In an armour of lace and fur, Blanche spars with the brawny Stanley and remonstrates with Stellar about the primitiveness of her relationship. She’s right: Stella maintains she’s happy, but ultimately she’s an abuse victim.
Tennessee Williams identifies the dysfunction of both sisters, presenting two polar opposite characters who plausibly come from the same place. Both have escaped: Stella to a blind, hyper-sexual present; Blanche to a world of make-believe. Perhaps Belle Rêve – the family home to which they nostalgically refer – wasn’t so beautiful after all.
Instead of walls the space is loosely framed by bars and curtains that combine to make an area that’s simultaneously ill-defined and claustrophobic. It’s not the dirt or the noise that hems you in, as in Williams’ original version. Instead there’s a contemporary, plasticky oppressiveness; lots of cheap stuff in not very much space.
The stage revolves, with the audience encircling the action. It can be hard to hear the actors when they turn they're on the other side but it’s a clever trick that adds to the feeling of voyeurism and reflects the theme of people in motion going nowhere at all.