When did the expression Live Theatre come into common usage? Theatre was live since Thespis stepped on the stage in the 6th century BCE and acted out characters for the first time. Until the 20th century, plays were performed on the stage and no one needed to say that they were “live”. All performances closed and disappeared except for the words of critics and diarists who left information about the production but, except for a sketch or a photograph, nothing else remained.
In the 20th century, the world changed when movies arrived and some performances started being recorded. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts established The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) and live performances began being recorded. When you can see a performance on film or tape, you need to distinguish between live and pre-recorded.
The current pandemic proved to be a great impetus for providing recorded performances to our homes. Theatre and opera companies streamed hundreds of productions to our home screens free of charge or for a nominal rental fee. It is an amazing transformation.
England’s National Theatre which had been streaming performances (almost) live in movie houses expanded the program by offering dozens of recorded performances free, for rent or by subscription. It now promises to add more titles every month to justify yearly or monthly subscriptions as well as rental of individual performances.
Which brings me to a production of A Streetcar Named Desire that was recorded in 2014 and can be watched as many times as you want for 72 hours for a rental fee of $13.50. In May 2020 it was streamed gratis. The difference between watching a performance in the theatre with the communal reaction of an audience and the attendant excitement cannot be replaced by sitting on a couch at home. No doubt, but it is much better than not being able to see a performance at all.
We settle down and wait to see the opening scene of Williams’ great play in the lively Elysian Fields and quickly realize, to paraphrase Dorothy, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in New Orleans.” Director Benedict Andrews and Designer Magda Willi have opted for an unconventional set. We see a skeleton of a set which represents Stanley Kowalski’s and Stella’s apartment. It has an open concept with only a see-through drape to indicate essential separations between rooms. They use a rotating stage which gives the live audience a continually changing perspective. At home we notice that, without getting all of the benefit because the cameras are focused on the speakers and follow the turns of the stage.
The action is moved from the 1940’s to more current times indicated by the clothes and updating the cost of a bottle of Blanche’s perfume from $25 to $250. The production had some glitches but the outstanding performances of the four principal actors delivered an unforgettable view of the play. The central character is Blanche DuBois and every production is judged by how successfully she is portrayed. Gillian Anderson joins a stellar array of Blanches such as Jessica Tandy (the first, in 1947), Melina Mercouri, Vivien Leigh, Tallulah Bankhead, Rosemary Harris, Jessica Lange and others.
Anderson brings a histrionic performance of the pathetic Blanche, a woman at the end of her rope who tries to fool people and herself that she is of aristocratic lineage, beautiful, desirable with the realization of her dreams one step away. We witness her pathetic descent as we get information about her past. The ultimate result is rape and insanity, something that seems forgotten as we watch her lie and pretend that she can find riches even if she had become a prostitute.
Ben Foster plays the obnoxious, low-life, brute Stanley Kowalski. He represents the opposite of Blanche in his commonness but is like her in his sexual appetite. The tattooed, muscular, crude, outraged Stanley has found in Stella a tolerant woman whose sexual appetite equals his and provides the main glue for their survival.
Vanessa Kirby as Stella is attractive, sexually alluring and she has found a bond with Stanley that may be driven by sexual passion but it survives on love. Stella is rooted in reality and Kirby gives an outstanding performance in the role.
Cory Johnson does a fine job as the simple, rather doltish Mitch who falls for Blanche. He is a pathetic man who may have never been with a woman and is looking for a simpleton like himself. He knocks on the wrong door.
Andrews does superb work with the actors. We get the pathos and horror of life in the Kowalski apartment through the bravura performances. The set provides problems for scene changes. Andrews created musical interludes and light changes as stagehands or the actors make changes. I found them annoying. But in the end, like Dorothy, we realize that we never left Kansas/New Orleans and saw an outstanding production of a great play.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, recorded at the Young Vic in 2014, is available from the National Theatre at www.ntathome.com.