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Open a copy of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and you will find the playwright’s lyrical description of the 1940s New Orleans in which it is set: a poor quarter with “raffish charm”, houses with rickety galleries and “quaintly ornamented gables”. Open the door to the rehearsal room of the Young Vic’s new production and you will find something rather different.
The cramped apartment is there all right, the tightly packed conditions that so dismay Blanche DuBois when she turns up at her sister’s home. But there’s no hint of the decayed elegance that we associate with Williams’ New Orleans. It looks like a modern, utilitarian bedsit packed into a skeletal frame. Benedict Andrews, the play’s director, leads me to a model box featuring the same set in miniature. “It rotates,” he says, spinning the diminutive apartment enthusiastically with his finger.
But why? Why would a director, gifted the evocative allure of the play’s original setting, choose not to use it? Andrews, settling into a seat, explains.
“I think many productions you see now are more old-fashioned than the original,” he says. “Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan [who directed the legendary 1951 film with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando] – these guys were radical innovators at the time ... The things Williams is trying to grab, with jazz and with a dangerous part of the town, this has become gentrified: doing the play in a period way can lead to an automatic gentrification. I’ve never seen a production of it where a kind of gentility doesn’t overtake the play – and I don’t think it’s a genteel play.”
Andrews is not a man to do things by halves. One of Australia’s most exciting and controversial directors, he brings visual audacity, fierce intellect and immense vitality to his work. Cate Blanchett, a regular collaborator, has described his rehearsals as “muscular – brutal, even”, but his productions often combine raw physicality with a keen sense of metaphor and determination to get beneath the skin of a piece. His 2009 Richard II in Sydney rained gold down on the monarch (played by Blanchett) for 90 minutes; his Caligula (2012) for English National Opera was staged in a sports stadium.
Now in his early forties, he is resident in Iceland, but constantly on the move – international projects currently on the table include Genet’s The Maids in New York and Puccini’s La bohème in Amsterdam. His regular work in opera, over the past few years, has underlined his commitment to the making new of classics. He is a writer, too, with a number of plays to his credit and a recent first volume of poetry, Lens Flare, which includes reflections on hotel rooms: you learn a lot, he says, from “making yourself a stranger in the world”.
He was last at London’s Young Vic in 2012 with a raw, thrilling take on Three Sisters that had Chekhov’s characters brandishing expletives, blasting out Nirvana and finishing up marooned on a mound of earth. It was febrile and exhilaratingly acted, achieving a poignant physical expression of the restlessness of Chekhov’s age and fusing it with that of our own. At the time Andrews talked about the spiritual “homesickness” in that play: what, I wonder, does he identify as the driving force in Williams’ great classic?
“It’s hunger,” he says. “It’s a play about overwhelming sexual needs and drives that affect everybody’s lives. Everybody in this place has abandoned a previous life ... New Orleans is a gathering place of people who are on the run from something.”
Andrews has ridden Streetcar before. In 2009 he staged a stripped-back German production at the Berlin Schaubühne, where he works frequently. This time his staging will be more concerned with the drama’s location “on the borderline between the real and the mythic”. Hence the revolving set, aimed at continually altering the audience’s engagement with what appears to be real.
“Tennessee Williams took the broken New Orleans he lived in and transformed it into myth,” he says. “He was interested in dichotomies – inside and outside, memory and present, illusion and reality. So for me using realism – you open the fridge and take out a beer – that’s to get to another level.”
Andrews is in good company at the Young Vic: the theatre is now something of a go-to venue for remixed classics. Highlights have included Joe Hill-Gibbins’ The Changeling, a delirious staging of the Jacobean horror-fest that ended up strewn with red jelly, and, most recently, a superb, stark View from the Bridge by Belgian director Ivo van Hove.
Not all such experiments work, of course, and not all audiences are pleased to see great classics ripped from traditional settings. Conceptual treatments tend to divide opinion, and Andrews has enraged plenty of people. Critic Peter Craven complained that “Benedict Andrews is my nightmare of what director’s theatre can come to.” Does such negative reaction worry him?
“I think there’s a lazy shorthand that goes, ‘People are only doing this because they’re self-indulgent or after some scandal’,” Andrews replies. “It’s nonsense. Why would you go into a rehearsal room with talented people to only try and do that? You’re doing it because you want to try and get to the heart of the matter. You’re working with a piece of great dramatic literature because it still has something urgent to say about being alive. I’m never trying to provoke an audience; I’m trying to engage an audience.
“What I don’t believe is that there is one stable reading that you can compare all others to,” he adds. “I’m trying to find how the play sings, speaks. I do plays because I love them deeply, because I am in awe of the writers, because I love the characters that they create. The only reason I want to go to the theatre is to get closer to people and their emotions. I simply don’t feel that when I go to polite, so-called well-made theatre. It’s lazy and full of shortcuts and it doesn’t hit me in the guts or make the hairs on my arm stand up.”
In fact, he argues, his response to Streetcar is far from cavalier. Williams, he believes, “dug this thing out of himself”, and his own responsibility is to do it justice:
“Each scene takes the characters further and further towards an abyss, and deeper and deeper into conflict. We’re just trying chase it down and learn how to play it. You’ve got to put everything on the line.”
Such work is demanding of actors (his cast includes Gillian Anderson as Blanche, Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirby as Stella), but that for Andrews is the point. It’s in the combustion between a written text, the physical daring of an actor and the willing complicity of an audience that drama comes alive for him. He points out the links between Streetcar and The Maids – both create a highly charged, claustrophobic environment in which unhinged characters enact dangerous fantasies – and admits that most of his current projects involve individuals in extremis.
“There’s something about following the character, and simultaneously the actor, to that brink,” he says. “I think this is what the great plays do ... they invite us to think to the edges of being human. Lear thinks to the edge, Blanche thinks to the edge. I have an attraction to these characters.”
‘A Streetcar Named Desire’,
YoungVic, London, July 23-Sept 19.
Photograph: Howard Sooley