“The truth is out there,” Gillian Anderson would say in The X Files, “but so are lies.” As the embattled Blanche DuBois in the Young Vic production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the former F.B.I. Special Agent Dana Scully spouts no end of both—lies to save face, truths when all else fails. Documented live in London in September 2014, her skeptical, flinty performance won Anderson the Evening Standard Award for Best Actress.
As reported by The Guardian, Anderson had coveted the part from the time she was a girl without knowing why. “It just became one of those things,” Anderson said. “I felt if I got to the end of my life and had not done it, I would have failed myself in some way.” She may have her answers now. For us out there in the dark, it’s a different story. The closer we look at the play, the more it mystifies.
Like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, Blanche travels her path on a map of allegory. Cast out of her native Eden—the white-pillared mansion known by the fractured-French name of Belle Reve—she heads for the only safe haven she can still think of, moving in on her “baby sister” Stella in the low-rent corner of New Orleans called Elysian (“Illusion”?) Fields.
But the brutal realities that drove her there cannot be left behind—certainly not amid open war with her hard-nosed brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, veteran, guy’s guy, and enforcer of the Napoleonic Code. “We’ve had this appointment with each other from the beginning!,” Stanley insists as the panicked Blanche brandishes a broken bottle in his face. He disarms her, she blacks out, but the rape proceeds, leaving Blanche nothing to hope for but the doubtful kindness of strangers and the asylum.
Staging Williams for the 21st century, Benedict Andrews sweeps aside the Southern Gothic trappings of tradition. Played in modern dress and in the round, the action unfolds on a minimalist set that begins to revolve with Blanche’s first surreptitious slug of hooch. Though her purple poetic streak inevitably strikes Victorian chords, Anderson breaks with the Luna moths who have fluttered through the play from Day One, presenting instead a sleek 21st-century road warrior cut loose in killer stilettos. As Stanley, Ben Foster achieves a no-less-radical metamorphosis from the archetype that dates back to Marlon Brando, who created the part in 1947.
Before Brando’s Stanley, Gore Vidal once wrote, “no man [on the American stage or screen] was considered erotic. A man was essentially a suit, not a body.” Foster is no suit, yet his beefed-up, close-cropped bruiser erases every trace of Brando’s poète maudit, embracing a “common” (Stanley’s word), blue-collar pride that knocks the willing Stella off her pedestal but fills Blanche with contempt. Her insults trigger thunderbolts of sudden violence—plates smashed, a telephone hurled across the room. Like Blanche, this Stanley has come in for humiliating bruises, none more painful than those inflicted by her.
A Streetcar Named Desire is available for streaming on the National Theatre at Home Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii