Shiver me Timbers! The UK National Theatre does Tennessee Williams

Ahoy there me mateys!  Matey Kim @ travelinginbooks was kind enough to let me know that “the UK’s National Theatre is presenting certain plays for free on YouTube through June to provide theatrical experiences while people are stuck at home during lock-downs. These plays are available for one week beginning each Thursday.”  Having been a professional stage manager and having seen some of this theatre’s work when I lived in London I absolutely HAVE to watch these.  The first one was Frankenstein and it rocked.  Then there was a not so good Antony & Cleopatra and an excellent contemporary about barbershops.  This week’s foray is the American classic A Streetcar Named Desire (though May 28th).

This production starred Ben Foster as Stanley and Gillian Anderson as Blanche.  While I have never seen the movie, I did study this play and stage manage a production of it.  So how did this one compare?  It was an excellent, different take and a masterful production.

In the version that I worked on, the director took a more traditional approach on the play.  It was set in New Orleans in 1947.  Stanley was a brute, crude, and plain antagonistic.  He was selfish and vain and his ego was overblown.  Blanche was a dreamy, damaged sort who struggled to maintain her vision of the world.  She could be manipulative and mean but it was used more as a defense mechanism.  Life had run her down and she longed to live in a world that no longer (or maybe never) existed.  While Blanche was never mentally stable, Stanley literally drives her mad.  Blanche was the tragic figure and Stanley a beast.

The 2014 UK National Theatre version was set in modern times and showcases a lower-class Stanley who enjoys his life and marriage.  While he is no prince charming, there was a humanity to his character that the other production I worked on lacked.  While violence exists in his marriage, there is a cycle of fighting and make-up sex that is just part and parcel of the relationship.  In that 9th ward neighborhood, there wasn’t anything unusual in this type of marriage. It also seemed like the director tried to make Stanley have PTSD as an excuse for some of his less savory tendencies.  In this production, Blanche is no innocent rose in bad circumstances.  She is manipulative, selfish, a drunk, and an all around not nice person.  Her mental illness may have started when she was young but by the end of this production it has completely taken over.  Ye can almost sympathize with Stanley at the beginning though of course any concern for him quickly evaporates as he becomes absolutely hateful in return.

The Mitch and Stella characters are hard to develop into well-rounded characters given how the play is structured.  I thought the UK production was successful in trying to make them have agency and depth.  Stella, played by Vanessa Kirby, obviously had a fraught childhood dealing with Blanche.  She fled the family home due to the dysfunctional nature of Belle Reve and never looked back.  Her sister’s presence brings unwanted problems and frustration as Blanche criticizes all of her life choices.  Does Stella treat Blanche well out of guilt of running away from home or just to make her home life easier?  By the end, Blanche has certainly driven a wedge between the married couple.

Mitch is usually played as a kind of clueless oaf.  While he is certainly uneducated in this production, he isn’t stupid.  He genuinely enjoys Blanche’s company and cares about her.  He does have a softer side which makes him the butt of his buddies’ jokes.  He is probably the most tragic in this production because Blanche is baiting him and lying to him the whole time.  His anger at the end was justifiable.

In terms of the production values, the biggest problem I had was with the sound design.  I thought the rock music played during scene shifts was jarring and weird.  Though the music choices did make better sense after the intermission.  The set rotated and I do wonder how seeing the play live would have been affected by this aspect.  The film couldn’t showcase this correctly.  Lighting and costume designs were fine.  Though I do want to point out that the makeup choices for Blanche in this play were excellent and unexpected and added a lot of depth to the final scenes of the show.

The only other small problem were the odd interludes during the scene changes that showcased Stella’s love of sex and another that was supposed to show how upset Blanche was the night her husband died.  I would have removed both of these weird sections.

My final thoughts are about how much watching the scene shifts reminded me of how hard they were to organize and do.  There are so many props in this play to change in between scenes.  Then add in costume changes, food, and the breakables (paper lantern & broken bottle).  It was fierce.

Oops I lied!  I have also seen this play a third time though that production faded out of me noggin as it was the first production I saw (and apparently didn’t think much of).  I had sort of forgotten that I did a lot of props for that production.  I washed, de-labeled, and re-labeled beer bottles for weeks.  The memory emerged from the fog and made me laugh!

Side note:  The First Mate saw this play for the first time, having never read it.  He thought this was an excellent production about truly irredeemably horrible people.  He has no desire to watch it again and is puzzled by its continued popularly.  This Captain gets why it be popular but can’t sway him.

Next week is a play called The House.  I don’t know this one but apparently it is a “timely, moving and funny insight into the workings of 1970s British politics.”  Doesn’t sound like me jam but I will watch it anyway.  Ye never know.  Arrrr!!

x The Captain

14 thoughts on “Shiver me Timbers! The UK National Theatre does Tennessee Williams

  1. ” [Me First Mate] thought this was an excellent production about truly irredeemably horrible people. He has no desire to watch it again and is puzzled by its continued popularity. ” XD I’m dying. He’s not wrong! But Williams’s transformed the world of stage productions with this play. The history here matters. There are so many plays I’m worried that will die in obscurity because we aren’t doing a good job preserving the nature of their existence. Times were different. Expectations were different. Society needed different things! We cannot let great works vanish because we find them uninteresting. /EndSoapbox

    Great review! I love your attention to detail — like the asides and the costumes. Keep these reviews coming, Cap’n!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He does agree that Streetcar is an important historical piece and should be studied. There are some plays like The Inspector Calls which is popular and good to study that I hate and never want to see again. I will certainly keep reviewing plays cause it is bringing me joy right now. Though I know nothing about British politics of the 1970s so this week’s play is going to be interesting.
      x The Captain

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! (Also, I am amused to see that we have a lot of similar interests. While I’ve only worked with community theaters, I have been a stage manager in the past, too.) I haven’t seen this Tennessee Williams play, but his The Glass Menagerie is one of my favorites.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stage managers unite!!! Ye make me happy. I love The Glass Menagerie too. I think that is the better play for me personally but Stanley and Blanche are so dramatic. Have ye ever read Christopher Durang’s parody of Menagerie? It’s called For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls. Silly and fun. The technicians did a version of that parody on the set of Menagerie for fun one year.
      x The Captain

      Like

      1. I wasn’t aware of the parody of Menagerie! My school put on The Glass Menagerie, but that was before my time as a state manager, so while I loved the production I have no idea what happened backstage on that one. I’ll have to look up the parody, though, thanks for letting me know about it!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. This was so interesting to read! I love (most) Tennessee Williams but I’ve never seen any live. I read another review that Gillian Anderson was amazing in this though. Thanks for the heads up that these will be temporarily on YouTube, I hadn’t heard that!! Must check them out.

    Liked by 1 person

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