Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois
Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois
© Johan Persson

It is almost the last line in Tennessee Williams's 1947 mythic masterpiece, but Gillian Anderson as Blanche DuBois, the enervated Southern belle who's drifting to oblivion, has clearly depended on the kindness of strangers for ever.

A tiny woman, built up to her own idea of genteel refinement on wedged soles and stilettos, Anderson's Blanche is a frightened doe, an eye-popping rabbit, fleeing the lies she lives by at the end of the streetcar terminus in the Elysian Fields, New Orleans, where she's come to rest in the home of her sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby), and Stella's abusive husband, Stanley Kowalski (Ben Foster).

Nearly two years ago, Australian opera director Benedict Andrews turned Chekhov inside out with a stunning Young Vic rewrite of Three Sisters; here, he sticks to Williams's text but jolts it anachronistically forwards (cordless phones, Hendrix-style wailing rock guitar, 1950s pop songs), though Blanche always did taunt her gentleman caller, mother's boy Mitch, with "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?"

Most innovatively, Andrews and his designer, Magda Willi, place the entire action on a huge steel-framed rectangle, the rooms divided by muslin curtains in the now suddenly vast Young Vic arena. And the edifice revolves continuously from the minute Blanche arrives, swigs from the bourbon bottle, and declares that she's got to keep hold of herself.

So the play becomes a ghostly, slow-moving carousel of Blanche's disintegration. The heat and dangerous, anxiety-inducing proximity in the apartment are maintained in this environment, underscored with a rumbling soundtrack (sound by Paul Arditti, music by Alex Baranowski); until, that is, Mitch explodes at the poker game and the tension boils over into shocking domestic violence.

As the cage-like rectangle moves, so does our perspective on the characters, whom we can see now in close-up, now in longshot, through a doorway, in the bathroom. It's the best sort of theatre-in-the-round, turning the style's disadvantages and drawbacks to aesthetic triumph.

(It might be interesting to see how this translates - with difficulty, I imagine - when the production is broadcast as part of NT Live in cinemas on 16 September).

Not the least of the show's pleasures lies in the logistics of the scene and costume changes, lending Anderson in particular a tragic chameleon quality as she emerges transformed behind a shower curtain, as a momentarily refreshed seducer, or a tatterdemalion Southern belle, face smeared with lipstick and disappointment.

She literally lives out of her suitcase (and her memories), a process I've never seen conveyed so poetically before. That said, Anderson's vocal fragility sometimes counts against her, and she doesn't quite go the extra mile with the part as did Glenn Close at the National. And Close played opposite the best Stanley I've seen, Iain Glen; Ben Foster is hunky and sweaty, but sexual charisma's not his strong point.

The "second" roles, though, are as good as they get in Vanessa Kirby's heart-breaking Stella (like Julie Jordan in Carousel – written two years earlier - trapped in a violent marriage she wants to keep) and Corey Johnson's big-hearted, confused and plausible Mitch; he's as devastated by Blanche's backstory as she is stranded by the last straw slipping through her fingers.

"I don't want realism, I want magic," is Blanche's war-cry, and it's the poignant grubbiness of their conjunction that marks out this groundbreaking play. It's modern, mythic and hot all at the same time, and Williams's language melds poetry with base idiom, explosive argument with the jazz riffs of the emotionally, as well as materially, dispossessed. And that's what this production honours fully.