NT Live Encore: A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic)

streetcar

From the screen of the Curzon Richmond, I watched the Encore performance of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, recorded live at the Young Vic.  As this space can be configured in any way to suit the production, designers and directors always have a free hand, and here Magda Willi’s revolving set allows the audience to eavesdrop on the action within the Kowalskis’ home, a minimalist, clinical pot where poker, Chinese lanterns, and the kindness of strangers mix into the plot.

Benedict Andrews directs this production, and updates the costumes and music to give an additional kick to the potency of Tennessee Williams’ play.  So you will hear Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game’ and PJ Harvey’s ‘To Bring You My Love’ (also used in the series 2 opener of Peaky Blinders), alongside Patsy Cline’s ‘Stop The World’ and an original score by Alex Baranowski.  Although some reviews have stated this is a minus, as Stanley, Stella and Blanche can only exist in the past, I think it balances out the plot well and makes key scenes in the action more relevant and accessible.

Gillian Anderson’s Blanche Dubois makes her entrance dragging a large pull-along suitcase and wearing shades, tottering into an area she clearly despises, having come from better things.  She is a surprise guest at the home of her sister Stella Kowalski (Vanessa Kirby) and Stella’s husband, the brutish Stanley (Ben Foster).  Theirs is a passionate relationship fuelled by violence and desire, and Blanche is walking straight into hell.

Corey Johnson as Mitch is a strong supporting character, who you may remember was essayed brilliantly by Karl Malden in the old film.  He’s the sympathetic one at the card table, the one with the sick mother, the one who sees a beauty and innocence in Blanche which hides any doubt about her age or past.  In one knowing scene which could not have been used in 1951, Mitch and Blanche discuss her marriage and issues around her husband’s ‘degenerate’ nature and eventual suicide.  In parallel scenes in each half of the production Mitch hangs up a pink lantern for Blanche, and then rips it down when he discovers her true nature.

The film’s use of close ups occasionally jars when aspects of the revolving set get in the way, but they are used to great effect in places, especially involving Anderson’s transformation from the cool and calm schoolteacher to the lipstick-smudged doll on the edge of insanity.  It’s a towering performance which will infuriate, amuse and eventually break your heart.  Her interplay with Foster’s Stanley is also very good, and he does not over-dominate proceedings – you know he is there, and you know there is danger when he is about, but he is also content to take second place to Miss Dubois.

Stella is a more problematic character, who seems turned on by domestic violence and who eventually abandons her sister and her principles for the man who has caused everything to collapse, but in Kirby’s portrayal she is very well-rounded and you can see her struggles and her love for her family conflict with her animal passion for her husband.

It’s difficult to fault this performance in any way, and this NT Live production is definitely well worth watching.

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National Theatre Live: War Horse – ★★★★★

There doesn’t seem to be much love for the Spielberg movie of this play (which uses real horses) but in the case of this theatre production I have to say that Handspring and their horse puppets deserve all the plaudits that have been given to them.

In rural Devon, 1912, young Albert acquires Joey the foal thanks to his drunken dad’s attempt to outshine his brother. During the process of caring for the horse a bond develops between boy and animal that even their parting by the Great War can’t break.

The use of minimal sets and staging (a torn piece of paper for projections, lights, music and of course the puppets – including a comic goose for light relief) all contribute to the sense that we are seeing the world through the eyes of a real animal in real locations.

The battle scenes are superb in their depth, Albert grows from a naive farm boy to a lance corporal who has seen the horrors of war, and if the good German is a little shaky in accent, then it just adds to the balance given here between friend and foe, as experienced by the horse.

This play feels cinematic even though it is sparsely staged, and some moments are emotionally draining, especially the scene in No Man’s Land. Most of this is due to the skill of the puppeteers who make the objects real.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

NT Live: Macbeth (from Manchester International Festival)

A trip last week to see the much-lauded production of the Scottish play transmitted live from St Peter’s Church, Manchester, starring Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston, Ray Fearon, John Shrapnel and a hard-working cast who keep this tale of murder and madness zipping along in the deconsecrated space.

The opening scene is one of pure war – in place of hearsay of Macbeth’s bravery, we see it for ourselves, alongside the betrayal of Scotland’s good and great by the Thane of Cawdor.  The weird witches appear from large doors at one end of the aisle, croaking both Macbeth’s path to greatness and his doom.

Branagh, who also co-directs, is a fine technician, but I never quite believe in his characters, and that’s the case here.  Compare his mighty Thane who will be king hereafter with Alex Kingston’s womanly Lady M, who ends up horrified, disturbed, and almost possessed by guilt as she sleepwalks.  As Macduff, the former soap opera actor Ray Fearon is superb in a portrayal which sees the soldier break down and feel his grief ‘as a man’ – the most touching and powerful interpretation of the role I have seen in many versions of the play.

Amongst the smaller roles, John Shrapnel is a warrior Duncan (and also reappears as Macbeth’s servant and the holy Father who talks of the horses eating each other), and Alexander Vlahos is certainly one to watch as Malcolm.  Jimmy Yuill plays Banquo with some bluster and makes a powerful ghost when it comes to the banquet scene where Macbeth’s ‘safe’ haven starts to crumble.

The best part of this production (viewed in the cinema in HD), is the set and the ambience – the rain and the mud of battles, the use of the church windows and space to generate the image of a dagger, or odd colours which illuminate the earth-coloured space as Malcolm makes his false confession to Macduff.  The church and its candles acts as a backdrop for Lady Macbeth’s prayers, the murder of Duncan (rarely seen on stage), and the interaction with the play of the charcoal-faced witches.

Rob Ashford and Kenneth Branagh have created a worthy Macbeth in a ‘found space’ which works brilliantly, despite Branagh’s lack of real engagement in the lead.  There’s much to enjoy here, and I envy those few who got one of the coveted tickets to see this live.