It’s Tennessee Williams’ hundredth anniversary, though Terence Rattigan seems to have slightly stolen his thunder. You’ll be hard pushed to find much marking this event, so it’s good to see The Print Room staging Williams’ Kingdom of Earth, last performed in London in 1984. This jagged drama is a bit like A Streetcar Named Desire with the wiring exposed. There are some exhilarating and dangerous sparks, but it’s sometimes a little too easy to spot the mechanics behind it all.
Kingdom of Earth is set on the Mississippi floodplains, with the banks are set to burst. It is here that Lot and his new wife Myrtle plan to start their lives, in Lot’s childhood home. The only problem is, it isn’t empty. Amid the dirt and mud that threatens to subsume the house long before the water, lurks Lot’s half brother Chicken. These brothers stand at polar ends of Williams’ sliding spectrum of masculinity. Lot, with his bleached blond hair and penchant for fine clothes, is as effeminate as they come. His brother Chicken, crawling about on all fours as Lot and Myrtle settle in to their sinking new home, is as fierce as Lot is foppish.
In between this rock and a soft husband lies ex-show girl and prostitute Myrtle. All three characters are highly defined and grow only more so as their situation closes in on them. It turns out Lot and Chicken made a deal a long time ago and, as a result, their dank and dusty home belongs to the beast and not the beauty. Lot needs Myrtle to get Chicken drunk and tear up the contract. But Myrtle can’t hold her drink that well, Chicken sure as hell can, and Lot is all but useless, since his lungs are about to implode and his mother’s dresses are proving mightily distracting.
And so, these extreme but engaging characters connive, converse and flirt, rubbing off each other and becoming more defined still. Fiona Glascott is weirdly entrancing as an ex-show girl, addicted to performing though her public is long gone. Her voice is wonderfully textured, each line carved out for maximum impact, often emphasised with a flick of the feet. Joseph Drake, as Lot, sounds like he is talking through glass: every word is icily defined but somehow slippery too. And David Sturzaker is impressively nuanced as the feral and seemingly fearless Chicken. Sturzaker could’ve bulldozed through this role, but he allows us glimpses of a softer, sensitive self. When he replies to Myrtle ‘I can see colour’ he seems to be answering a much bigger question, suggesting hidden depths now lost beneath the dirt and aggro.
But the plot feels stretched and too slight to support such thundering roles. There is only one plot thread – who will reclaim the family home – which wears a little thin. Myrtle effectively becomes a paper mule, shuffling between her dying husband and his dark brother, ferrying documents back and forth. It gets repetitive. The characters sharp edges start to grate and one longs for a little more story, a little more space to allow these tightly coiled characters to unwind.
Much of Bailey’s production feels overstated but there are, nevertheless, moments of dazzling and sobering wisdom. Confessing to Myrtle, Chicken reveals his life philosophy. Life, he suggests, is a rock, whereas man is soft. Life will never be soft and either life or man ‘has got to break’. It is a spellbinding scene, all the more moving from a man so hardened by life’s knocks that he has tried, but so obviously failed, to turn his soft human heart to stone.