This week I saw Gillian Anderson – the brilliant Dana Scully from The X Files – playing Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’, A Streetcar Named Desire. The audience at the Young Vic theatre were seated around a central stage that revolved for the entire three hours. The big critics enjoyed seeing the action from different perspectives, but for me it was like trying to watch your child on a crowded roundabout. One friend summed it up: “I found the constant movement exhausting.”
Drama is very different from literature. It’s a writer thinking in 3D and trusting a Director and a team of professionals from set designers to sound technicians to frame their visualisation coherently. The Director is an interpreter, searching the text for meaning and managing a cast that will feed into, and recreate, his or her understanding of events. Every director thinks differently. That’s why you can see five productions of Macbeth and walk away each time with a different understanding of the play.
Plays, I think, must be the hardest form of writing because the action on the page is actually off the page. It is visual, physical, sound and light dependent; and hardest of all, it is collaborative. In an odd way, every play we see is an exercise in literary criticism – the Director is materialising a dynamic, consensual, complex, evaluation of the text.
Throughout A Streetcar Named Desire, I kept asking myself what the Director, Benedict Andrews , was trying to show me. What was I supposed to learn about Blanche as the back of Gillian Anderson’s head revolved past, mid-speech? By the end I was none the wiser. While it’s interesting to see the way people move around a set from all angles, it’s confusing if the stage is moving as much as they do.
There will be times at Tricycle Readers meetings where we’ll be equally confused. Mornings where we read a text and ask: what am I meant to take away from this? This may be because it’s not challenging enough and we’re confused by its simplicity, or because it’s so challenging we have no idea where to start. There may be times, as it was for me this week, where we leave none the wiser. The good news with literary problems is that they don’t all have solutions. And they don’t all need them.
Have you joined Tricycle Readers yet? If you’re too far away, please follow our blog. Once the group gets going we’ll post up some of what we’re reading so you can enjoy the texts too.
I reviewed A Streetcar Named Desire on my theatre website. Read the review.