In 1999, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire was voted one of the 100 most significant plays of the 20th century in a poll conducted by the National Theatre. Now it's resurrected with great fanfare on the NT's Lyttelton boards in Trevor Nunn's long-awaited and meticulously planned revival, proving just why it still fully deserves its place on the National's - and indeed, any - list of theatre masterpieces.
Having 'lost' her family estate, the genteel but past-her-prime Blanche Dubois arrives on the New Orleans doorstep of her younger sister Stella who, much to Blanche's astonishment, is now slumming it in a two-room hovel with her greasy, son-of-a-Polish-immigrant husband, Stanley Kowalski. A battle for the heart and mind of Stella ensues, with a mentally and emotionally unstable Blanche the ultimate loser.
Premiered on Broadway in 1947, more than fifty years later, Streetcar has lost none of its power to both shock and enthral with its cocktail of sexual desire, self-delusion and violence, not to mention its age-old clash of the classes. But for ultimate impact, the casting of the two wary antagonists is absolutely crucial - and this, for all its star wattage, is where Nunn's production falls down.
Though fine actors in their own right, both Glenn Close and Iain Glen are sorely miscast in the roles of Blanche and Stanley. Yes, acting is all about becoming something you're not and casting needn't be rigidly prescriptive; nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to conform to some basic physical types. Here, Close is simply too old, too tall and too big-boned - altogether too solid-looking and sounding - for the frail Blanche, while Glen is quite the opposite - too lean, too neat, too refined for the brutish Stanley. While this size and stature mismatch seriously undermines the pair's power play, it's more detrimental still to the necessary sexual tension - you couldn't light a match with a blowtorch between these two, there's so little smoulder generated.
Elsewhere, Robert Pastorelli, with his marked lack of diction and projection, makes little impact as Mitch, but - praise be! - there's casting compensation in abundance thanks to the beguilingly open-faced Essie Davis. As Stella, blinded and blind-sided by lust, Davis is nothing short of mesmerising. She very nearly steals the show, and rightly.
Praise, too, for Bunny Christie's multi-storeyed tenement set, with its revolve of dingy rooms and a spiral staircase that reaches for the Lyttelton's lofty rafters through a confusion of laundry lines and ceiling fans. It creates a first impression of this Streetcar that takes the breath away, even if closer inspection of Nunn's version as a whole dampens that initial ardour.