The first reaction to the news that Gillian Anderson appears as Blanche DuBois in the broadcast production of of National Theatre Live'sA Streetcar Named Desire is doubt - doubt that she's old enough to play the aging southern belle Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' tragic story. A young Blanche just won't work. As soon as Anderson steps on the stage, that doubt disappears. She's fragile and vulnerable and oh so deliciously falling apart.
The Set-up: Tennessee Williams's story follows Blanche DuBois, a neurotic woman from a privileged background in Mississippi with a drinking problem and a multitude of personal demons. She arrives at her sister Stella's tiny apartment in New Orleans where she's confronted with her brutish brother-in-law Stanley who obviously doesn't welcome the visit. She's horrified at the meager circumstances she finds her sister living in and thinks Stanley, who regularly abuses Stella, coarse and common. Mitch, one of Stanley's friends, is attracted to the genteel Blanche.
Gillian Anderson is Blanche. Vanessa Kirby is Stella. Ben Foster is Stanley and Corey Johnson is Mitch.
Director Benedict Andrews sets the production on a revolving stage in the middle of a theater-in-the-round configuration (a constant and literal reminder of Blanche's slow downward spiral).
There are contemporary touches to NT Live's A Streetcar Named Desire. There's a wireless phone, a rolling suitcase and modern costumes but the language is the wonderfully the same.
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The Execution: Anderson's Blanche is a captivating. She unravels over the course of the play, one drink and burst of hysterical laughter at a time. Her scenes with Corey Johnson's Mitch are pitch perfect. She's both timid and desperate, chaste and seductive while he's her knight in less-than-shining armor.
The rest of the cast isn't as successful. Kirby's portrayal of Stella is underdeveloped. Her southern accent comes and goes, as does her sisterly attachment to Blanche. Ben Foster's Stanley lacks the animal magnetism that makes Stella's devotion to him understandable. He also lacks the physical or vocal authority that the role requires.
The Verdict: Anderson gives an intense, noteworthy performance that transcends the limits of the stage-to-film broadcast. She's operating on a level that's just out-of-reach for Kirby and Foster but the play, like the imaginary world Blanche has built up around herself, centers on her so Stella and Stanley are easily overlooked.