Thursday, June 2, 2016

Realism Lays Brutality Bare

A Young Vic production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Benedict Andrews, came to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.  Having seen Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, another Young Vic production two years ago, which featured a frenetically rotating house set (by Ian McNeill), I was weary when I read that here again the house set (by Magda Willi) rotated. But it was fine; with the seating on all four sides, the house moved slowly most of the time to allow the audience on all sides to see the action fully.  The production was intensely dramatic, gripping for sure, almost to the extent of exhausting the audience.  I was however left with a mixed feeling.  For one, Gillian Anderson as Blanche, praised by critics, was for me far too frenetic; her overdone Southern accent and her histrionic actions to match it at once stood out against the rest of the cast and at the same time set the tone of the entire play by dominating it. The action was set in a characterless, almost antiseptic, skeletal house, as dictated no doubt by the present day the play was placed; I missed the sense of the locale, the sultry air and languid squalor of New Orleans’ French Quarter, an integral element in Williams’ creation; and, so, Anderson’s Blanche also disturbed me in her lack of the ethereal otherworldliness I expected of the character.  In saying this, I am remembering the two earlier productions (aside from the 1951 Elia Kazan film featuring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, and Kim Hunter): one in 2005 at Studio 54, directed by Edward Hall and featuring Natasha Richardson, John C. Reilly, and Amy Ryan, and the other in 2009 at BAM Harvey, directed by Liv Ullman and featuring Cate Blanchett, Joel Edgerton, and Robin McLeavy; both were very impressive and the latter, in particular, is still vivid in my mind.  Pervasive cruelty in Blanche but above all in Stanley’s physical brutality disturbed me almost painfully.  A part of this effect had to the proximity of the actors to the audience; they deployed the floor around the house, brushing the knees of the first-row spectators.  But I alsowondered if I am getting too old to take violence enacted on stage.

This thought, however, led me deeper into the matter of Tennessee William;’s plays, many of which deal with human cruelty of one kind or another, and I began to see that the nature of realism in modern theater brings it closer to us and more immediate in contrast to the stylization that prevailed in older forms of theater.  Certainly, cruelty of all kinds abounds in Green drama — revenge, torture, and murder, all colorful and terrifying as such but distanced one way or another; they may take place off stage, or else be told but not shown, and if shown formalized, and this is true in Shakespeare and opera and Kabuki, this last being the theater I was nurtured in.  When a realist play like Williams’ is realized in the Stanislavskian mode in which authenticity is insisted upon more than, or even instead of, credibility, violence on stage achieves such immediacy as to close the aesthetic distance between fiction and reality.  If cruelty is psychological as in the plays of Strindberg, whose The Father was recently performed in a production by the TFANA, featuring remarkable John Douglas Thompson as the Captain, the distance is harder to close compared with physical brutality.  Violence in close prosimity becomes menacing. Realism, possibly by its nature, lays brutality bare.

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