KINGDOM OF EARTH is a revision of Tennessee Williams's 1967 Broadway flop, THE SEVEN DESCENTS OF MYRTLE. It is one of those plays often dismissed as a dismal product of Williams's stoned years. This revival under the direction of Lucy Bailey at her new intimate Print Room theatre has received critical raves. I agree with the general view of the critics is that the play may not be one of Williams's best, but that it is well worth reviving. I wonder how much of the success of this revival has to do with the intimacy of the theatre. Plays look and sound different in close-up than they do in long shot -- we take the environment in which we see a play into account when we experience it.
A few years ago Lucy Bailey directed a highly successful large scale revival of Williams's BABY DOLL. Actually it was a stage version of the screenplay that was adapted from an older one-act play of his. BABY DOLL is Williams in a more comic vein and very much one of his somewhat grotesque Southern gothic works. It is not surprising that Bailey was drawn to KINGDOM OF EARTH, one of Williams's more grotesque works in which bizarre comedy, gothic melodrama and poetry are merged. It's a somewhat mad work but it has its own logic and some beautiful language.
Lot has brought his new wife Myrtle home to the family home on the Mississippi delta. They were married on a Memphis version of the fifties television show BRIDE AND GROOM after she had won on another daytime show, QUEEN FOR A DAY. Myrtle is a survivor. Barely educated, she has held a number of jobs including show business. Lot has married her to try to regain his control of the family home he has signed over to his mixed-race half brother, Chicken. Lot, who is dying of tuberculosis takes the notion of Mama's boy to new depths. He is a more benign Norman Bates parading around the house in his mother's clothes while coughing up blood. Chicken is another version of the Tennessee Williams rough trade fantasy, embittered by the treatment he has received because of his racial identity and bastard status and determined to hold on to the house. Myrtle has to decide between her allegiance to her new dying, lying, cross-dressing husband and the chance of survival with the rough, sexy Chicken. No contest. To compound her problems, the Mississippi is about to flood its banks and the floodwaters are headed toward the house.
Southern Gothic indeed. Williams maintains a fascinating balance here between comic and serious in his approach to his characters. One moment we are laughing at them, the next we are moved by their loneliness, their crude poetry and their fierce desires -- for love and for an idea of home and belonging. Lucy Bailey understands that this is not a realistic play. In the setting (Ruth Sutcliffe), odd pieces of furniture crop up in a giant mound of dirt. The only sign of the Southern gentility Lot so prizes is a small chandelier hanging over one area of the stage. Characters clamber up and down this mound in their various confrontations.
The acting couldn't be better. Fiona Glascott, a familiar face on British television comedies and dramas, is simply wonderful as the crass, plucky Myrtle, trying to treat the bizarre circumstances as if they were commonplace. Myrtle wants to make the best of every situation from her husband's impotence (or lack if interest in women) to Chicken's menace. David Sturzaker manages to make Chicken a sympathetic human being rather than a caricature. At the end, we see the sensitivity and hurt under the toughness. Moreover, he is sexy and that is crucial to the play. So often actors playing Williams's studs are caricatures of sexiness. Young Joseph Drake has the most thankless role. Lot isn't as well written as Myrtle and Chicken. Unlike them, he doesn't get much of a chance to express himself or gain the audience's sympathy. Drake is wise to emphasize Lot's ruthlessness instead of his weakness. Lot will do anything to wrest control of the house from his half-brother. He is in essence his mother's ghost.
So this is an excellent performance of a play that turns out to be more interesting than I thought when I read it. KINGDOM OF EARTH is being performed in The Print Room, a new small theatre in the Notting Hill area of London. Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters created the space out of an old warehouse. It's an excellent addition to London's fringe theatres where much of the most interesting theatre is produced at highly affordable ticket prices (around $20).
KINGDOM OF EARTH. The Print Room. May 24, 2011.