Anyone who knows me, knows that Gillian Anderson has been one of my favourite actresses since my childhood, when The X Files debuted. When I booked my first ever trip to the U.S. a few months ago, it was with the main purpose of seeing Gillian in A Streetcar Named Desire in New York. The city holds many attractions that present a certain expectation and many of them were fulfilled during my stay. What I didn’t expect was that I would leave the Big Apple, more specifically, St. Ann’s Warehouse, with a new sense of purpose and drive after almost six years of struggling.
I had packed portraits that I’d drawn to pass on for Gillian’s attention, never expecting to meet her as I did the second night I saw the play. Arriving in NYC, the airline informed me they’d lost my luggage. When it was returned to me three days later, water damage had destroyed the drawings and some of my clothes. I was gutted, but perhaps in the end, I wasn’t meant to give her anything on this visit. Maybe it was supposed to be about what Gillian could give me. A connection I had been missing for the last few years. Gillian’s Blanche shook me to my core and launched me unfettered into a state of recognition and awareness. A state that has reconnected me to why I wanted to be an actor in the first place.
When I took my seat in the front row in St. Ann’s Warehouse, I knew the production would be professional and thoroughly engaging. I had no idea that it would leave me transfixed and unequivocally changed. From the moment Gillian appeared as Blanche DuBois, something indescribable happened. For over three hours, I was transported to a different time and place, yet I could identify with the character and setting before me. Tennessee Williams was a master of creating memorable women in particular; Blanche, Stella, Maggie, Alexandra to name a few. All of them have been recreated before and since his death, but none have compared to Gillian’s incarnation of this Blanche DuBois.
Anderson has been a captivating visual storyteller since her career began, infusing the characters she plays with an almost ethereal essence that makes us care for and respect them. She can tell a story with her eyes in such a way that as an actress and writer, I strive to reach her level. The words she says onstage and onscreen are simply a vehicle for something much greater. If you are not familiar with the plot of A Streetcar Named Desire or Tennessee Williams, have no fear. Gillian will guide you as surely as if she were allowing you to climb into her head and hear Blanche’s thoughts. As my friend Corina once wrote “It is a writer’s dream for imagination to conquer reality, such a formidable opponent.” And if Tennessee Williams had lived to see Anderson take on Blanche, there is little doubt in my mind he would thank her for bringing his creation to life in this original and striking way.
Anderson is a vessel because the story does not merely come from her, she allows it to flow through her, projecting it as if from a prism and in the process it strikes the viewer relentlessly. Blanche’s pain is almost tangible and it takes all of one’s self control to remember that even if you could hug her, this woman is not in a place mentally where her broken psyche can be pieced back together. Blanche in this production is shockingly real and visceral. In an age where we are misled about who and what we should be on a daily basis by the media, Streetcar revealed with relentless ferocity just how fragile we all are underneath the exterior.
The moment that will stay with me more so than any other is after Blanche utters the famous line “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”. Her mental state completely shattered, she descends from the revolving stage. Arm-in-arm with a doctor, Blanche proceeds to walk around the outside parameters. During the final moments, she makes eye contact with every member of the audience in the front row. When her eyes met mine, I saw something I have never seen from an actor in a live setting before. Blanche expired before me, through her eyes. A light was extinguished in such a way that it left me in awe. Totally and completely. It is a moment that is recreated each and every night of the play. Devastating magic. I cried watching the destruction of a character I had come to know over the previous three hours. The realism struck a chord with everyone around me and words fail to capture what was a fleeting moment in time that was not recorded.
The scene calls to mind a saying in Irish, my native language “Is folamh fuar é teach gan bean.” Roughly translated it means “A house without a woman is empty and cold.” Blanche is the kind of character that you never realised you needed to meet until she vanishes. The loss stays with you after leaving the theatre, another mark of excellence.
Gillian has mastered the creation and destruction of one of the most difficult characters in drama. In doing so, her work and her commitment hit me like a ton of bricks. I have seen close to a thousand live performances of various plays in my 28 years, never before has a performance had such a profound impact on me. To understand and craft an interpretation of a character that left myself and grown men and women in the seats next to me tearful is an uncommon feat.
It is remarkably ignorant that actresses are believed to be at their peak in their twenties and earlier. This level of skill surely must be acquired through decades of hard work, learning, making mistakes and above all, passion for the craft. Instead of the disgraceful shaming older actresses are subjected to for something as natural as aging, we should be celebrating each and every one of them for the gifts they give us.
Gillian Anderson altered something for me on both nights I saw her. I did not see a stereotype, an infallible hero or a goddess. I saw a woman. I saw a character who wished to be younger, who wanted to be desired, to be safe, but it was a woman who must surely know herself better than anyone who played her. For the audience who is about to see Gillian Anderson, they are in for a treat.
At St. Ann’s Warehouse, you will not see a flame-haired FBI agent, or any of the other roles Anderson has made her own. You also will not see a Vivien Leigh-esque Blanche. There is nothing contrived about this Blanche and that is meant with the deepest respect for Kazan’s interpretation. Anderson’s Blanche is familiar and foreign all at once. She is new and of the old world. Rich and beautiful, destitute and cripplingly fragile.
She is every one of us if we are pushed far enough. That is what resonates so deeply and what moved us all to tears in the theatre on both nights I saw the play. We witnessed something real in an age that tells us falseness is the only way to be. Blanche was and is real to me in a way I have never seen a character be before. She is a woman. A deeply damaged, depressed, funny, charming, attractive, resourceful woman who numbs her grief as best she can and fights for her sanity until she can fight no more.
Gillian Anderson has given me a tremendous gift. When I went to New York from Dublin, I went in search of a dream I once had. To see an actress I had admired since her career began.
I went to see about a woman whose interpretation of a Southern Belle might challenge my disillusioned perceptions about the world we live in.
I went looking for some sort of realism. Gillian Anderson gave me back my long lost magic.
To her, I am forever grateful.
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Michelle Audrey 2016
*Images belong to Teddy Wolff.