In 1942, when Tennessee Williams first wrote the short story which became Kingdom of Earth, its content (exploring themes such as race and sexuality) meant that it wasn’t published for over a decade. The play is an examination of a power struggle between the two half brothers, Chicken and Lot, and Lot’s new wife Myrtle. Set in the 1960s, the story concerns the battle over the ownership of the brothers’ childhood home, as the flood waters of the Mississippi rise and threaten to engulf the property. As the plot unfolds the three must decide between honour and lust; power and revenge; principles and life.
The space the audience enters is immediately striking. Water seeps from the ceiling into haphazardly placed cups and saucers, serving as an almost musical accompaniment during the play. The set, beautifully imagined by designer Ruth Sutcliffe, resembles a mound of earth towering above the audience and serves to counteract the realism of the play. It might not be what Tennessee Williams had in mind but it nonetheless complements the text perfectly: the dripping water and the crumbling slope of the set are a macabre backdrop, a constant reminder of the potential death by drowning faced by all three characters.
Creating such a variety of levels within the space means that parallel scenes can be created and contrasted. This is most effective when Lot finally meets his maker. The moment is almost like something out of a horror film and creates a powerful image – a dying blood smeared husband descending as his wife and brother copulate on the kitchen table.
That scenes like this never descend into farce are a credit to the actors, all three of whom are a joy to watch. Joseph Drake’s transvestite Lot might have been too theatrical in less professional hands, but Drake treads the line between histrionic and malevolent as the character’s motives slowly come out. It is horrifying and enthralling to watch. Equally captivating is Chicken, the mixed-raced half-brother of Lot, played by David Sturzaker. His animalistic movements make him as threatening physically as he is psychologically, yet he manages to garner sympathy even in the play’s most disturbing sequences.
Fiona Glascott’s Myrtle, however, cannot help but steal the show. There is an element of schadenfreude in watching such a beautifully executed psychological decline of a character who at first glance seems so relentlessly optimistic. Glascott’s comic timing can only be outshone by the depth of emotion she conveys later in the play; the episodes that display her at her most desperate are almost painful to watch.
The actors work well together, and the chemistry that develops between Myrtle and Chicken is especially palpable. However I am never quite convinced that he is truly capable of hurting her, though whether this is deliberate I’m not sure. It does unfortunately impact on the tension between them: his threats never seem quite real, or quite as present as they could have done. Conversely their eroticism never feels uncomfortable, even in such an intimate setting. It also doesn’t seem exploitative. Every glance, touch and nuance of sexual suggestion ultimately adds to the tone of the play.
Credit must also be given to Lucy Bailey, who has re-imagined what could be a slightly melodramatic character study into something truly compelling. While at times I resented the decision to face actors away from the audience, obscuring their faces and reactions, I found the obvious direction driving the play to be powerful. It was clear what Bailey wanted to achieve with the piece, and so the pace was kept and there were no distractions – everything had a purpose. Even the occasional burst of music almost passed unnoticed; it fitted so well with the overall tone.
This play doesn’t feel like a ‘reworking’. It feels fresh and innovative in both its design and overall vision. The acting is superb and the script engrossing. All in all, this is a triumph and an excellent example of what fringe theatre is capable of achieving.
Until May 28th. For more information go to www.the-print-room.org