Brian Beacom

GINA Isaac is set to play a neurotic, self-obsessed alcoholic who uses sex as a weapon. How much of herself does she see in the character?

“I do like the odd glass of wine but I guess the rest is for others to say,” says the actress, grinning.

“But it’s like every character. You take a bit of what you know and you push it in the direction it needs to go in. I know a little bit about drink and a little bit about sex, but the hardest thing about playing Blanche is capturing the fragility.”

Blanche is of course Blanche DuBois. Tennessee Williams’ central character in A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the best ever written for the stage; ethereal - yet oddly focused, soft – yet tough as dried cowhide.

Streetcar reveals the tragic tale of a Southern belle, a lady who comes to live with her sister Stella and brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski in a run-down apartment in New Orleans. And there are tragic consequences.

Isaac, one of the country’s most accomplished stage actresses, has spent a great deal of time getting into DuBois’ quixotic head.

“It would be easy to think of her and sum her up with the words ‘Personality disorder’,” she offers, “but in studying the piece we’ve come to realise this is more a play about a woman who’s position in life has been forged by circumstances.

“This is a play about people who happen to be the position they’re in. She’s part of the old aristocracy, part of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. And this clashes with the new world and the vibrancy of New Orleans.”

Isaac is enjoying the process of becoming this impact creature, a lady who sashays into the world of Stella and Stanley and blows it apart.

She brings sex to the table, of course. Sex at its most powerful because it’s hinted at, not offered on a plate but on a silver tea spoon.

“Yes,” sex is used as a weapon,” says Isaac who was brought up in South East England. “And Blanche self-medicates with alcohol. But eventually she retreats from reality into her own head.”

Stella has a co-dependent relationship with Stanley. “She has a strong relationship with her sister, but ultimately she’s pulled in the direction of Stanley. And the tragedy begins to unfold.”

How relevant is the Tennessee Williams story today? “I’ve been thinking about that and realise it really is. You have the issues of alcohol dependency, domestic violence. And what’s also relevant is the theme of trying to hold onto a bygone age. We have technology and a very fast-paced life and there is a real question over what we are losing.”

She adds; “Blanche talks about art and beautiful things. She feels a great sense of loss.”

Gina Isaac has appeared in a range of great productions over the years, from A View From A Bridge to The Curious Incident of a Dog in The Nightime. She’s also flitted in and out of television, in the likes of Eastenders and The Bill.

But how hard is it to play a damaged creature such as Blanche? Is there a danger of revealing too much emotion, which can be draining? “Yes, absolutely. You’re bringing things out but there is a part of you that’s the watcher, that keeps you in control of what you’re doing. And I’m not a Method actor.”

Isaac knew from a young age she wanted to act. As a child she’d write little plays and put them on. “I then went to Central Drama School and had twenty odd years of grinding away. The first few years when I got out were tough, but I got just enough work to keep me going.”

She adds, smiling; “And when you’re younger you’re fearless and you live for your art. Plus, you need less to survive. But for most jobbing actors it’s about getting by. You have to love it to do it. Yet, when you’re working it’s wonderful.”

Isaac has a sister, but she can’t recollect sibling rivalry to bring to the Blanche-Stella dynamic.

“I always got on really well with my sister,” she says, grinning. “And no, I didn’t steal her boyfriend. She was sorted from a young age because she married her childhood sweetheart. I’m a bit more Blanche in that way in that I had to kiss a few frogs.”

The frog kissing paid off and Isaac is married to an actor, who will at least understand the commitment that goes into becoming a leading lady in a Tennessee Williams play.

“I’ve been sitting in the garden and speaking the lines over and over in a Southern accent,” she says, smiling. “The neighbours must really be wondering.”

•A Streetcar Named Desire, The Theatre Royal, September 5-9 and touring Scotland until October 7. See for details.