Giles Woodforde discovers from a Theatre Guild rehearsal how demanding a part is Streetcar’s Southern belle Blanche

‘What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street. But the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains,” says Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ classic 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire. After a traumatic few years back home in Mississippi, Blanche seeks a new life, and arrives at the New Orleans apartment of her sister Stella. Streetcar is being revived by Oxford Theatre Guild at the Playhouse next week.

Visiting a rehearsal on a decidedly chilly evening, I first ask director Jessica Reilly: how do you recreate a humid, subtropical New Orleans atmosphere in a wintertime Oxford rehearsal hall?

“We’ve been playing quite a bit of music from the period, which helps to create the necessary atmosphere,” she replies. “We’re going to use a live jazz band in the show, and they’ll be playing on stage. So they’ve recorded rehearsal tracks for us.”

The three central characters — Blanche, Stella, and Stella’s husband Stanley — all provide major, meaty acting roles, with Blanche perhaps being the most difficult of all.

“It’s an incredibly challenging part, with a lot of words,” agrees OTG’s Blanche, Cate Field. “I was speculating with Jessica the other day about what on earth you could try to follow Blanche with in terms of your acting CV. We couldn’t think of many parts that reach the same level.

“Blanche has had a rather dubious time of it during the couple of years before she arrives at Stella’s. She’s taken to drink, and she’s been living in a very rundown hotel since she left the family home. Dubious things with men have been going on, but she’s very keen to project herself as someone from the world she grew up in — this very refined kind of Southern belle, treated with deference by men who stand up when she comes into the room. All that kind of stuff. I think she’s trying to erase those dark years, but that doesn’t quite work.”

It’s hardly surprising, then, that Blanche’s arrival in town is gree-ted with some trepidation by her sister.

“She is happy to see her; they’ve been close in the past,” says Tracey Rimell, who plays Stella. “But they also have this slightly tenuous dynamic to their relationship. Stella is the eternal peacemaker, but that’s hard work for her. In some ways she’s tried to remove herself from that constant battle. All the same, there’s a genuine love and affection between them, I think.”

Then there’s Stella’s husband Stanley, played by Alexander Marks, who laughs robustly when I describe his character as “rough hewn”.

“Yeah, he had a rough and tumble upbringing, and comes from the other side of the tracks. So meeting Stella, who is from a plantation, that’s a bit of a divide to cross. But they are passionately in love, and they make a life together which is very different to the one she’s used to.”

But how difficult is it to stage this complex triangle of relationships? Does Streetcar come off the script easily, or does a director need to build up the characters?

“Because he’s an amazing writer, Williams has done quite a lot of the work for us,” Jessica, OTG’s director, replies. “But creating relationships on stage is always about creating chemistry between actors, which can create a bit of work.”

“I think we jumped straight in at the deep end, broke the ice, and got on with it,” Cate Field adds.

“It’s nice to become friends offstage as well: the more you socialise and become comfortable together, the more the relationships evolve on stage.”