THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
During the Coronavirus lockdown, there's one thing that I've been unconsciously avoiding. Whilst I love that theaters across the UK, and world, have been freely airing productions online, I never personally thought that an online broadcast could replace the experience of the actual stage. However, when I heard that the National Theatre would be streaming the Young Vic's production of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois, I knew I had to take notice. This was one of those productions which, when it was on stage, I regretted missing. Watching it stream on Youtube this evening (May 21st), I realized two things. First, if you can't attend a show live, video recording is the next best thing. Second, I truly miss theater, and if social distancing makes the heart grow fonder, we need to make sure these theaters can continue when the lockdown properly lifts.
Like many, I first studied Streetcar in college. Most know the story, but for those who don't, at its core, Streetcar tells the story of Blanche DuBois, a lost southern belle whose soul becomes tormented by her sister's husband, Stanley. Written by Tennessee Williams in 1947, it's a story which has a timeless capacity to discuss matters of romance, fantasy and illusion. Perhaps not the type of themes that would stand out in the current circumstances, but the type of themes which elucidate the very essence of stage theater - drama and emotion.
What streaming captures is the brilliance of the actors involved. Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster (as Stanley) and Vanessa Kirby (as Stella) all received wonderful reviews when the play was on stage, and their skills are easily discernible on screen. What I hadn't anticipated was how smoothly the production came across when recorded. The staging at the time, a rotating New Orleans apartment set, worked its magic on screen, depicting Blanche's slow, circling descent into madness. I also appreciated that the recording allowed the focus to always be on the right aspect of the set at the right time. It somehow made the experience more evocative, and more cinematic.
What the video recording lacked, however, was the intimacy of the theater set itself. I needed to turn up the audio to properly hear the actors, and you can't help but feel distant from the stage when you're aware that this is a recording. Watching theater in your own living room lacks that all essential x factor of being out in the world, experiencing something genuinely in person. But what the broadcast accomplished, especially at this point in time, was to combine two emotions. An appreciation to see wonderful acting, incredible staging and a fantastic production on screen, alongside a real enthusiasm for supporting the theater for when we can all go back.
Theater allows us to escape, and a lot of us really appreciate that escapism from the difficult set of circumstances that, as a world, we face. Anderson is such a star that she can carry a production through the lens of a telescope, let alone a screen, so perhaps it's not a surprise that this broadcast of Streetcar is such a powerful escape. But I think the real power in this broadcast is in allowing us to feel that escape, to feel the raw emotion of the theater, whilst at the same time allowing us to yearn for the authenticity that being in a theater offers. Tonight's broadcast made me want to support the theater even more. Whilst I had a wonderful lockdown evening watching this production, and I heartedly thank National Theatre for giving us that escape, I cannot wait to be able to take my seat, order an interval drink, and watch the curtain rise in person once again.