The Print Room, London W2
Opened 4 May, 2011

Centenary retrospection this year seems, to British sensibilities, to have been kinder to Terence Rattigan than Tennessee Williams; I suppose this is only to be expected given the choice between the disciplined English reticence of the former and the often unruly floridity of the latter. Williams’ Kingdom Of Earth (which premièred in 1968 under the awful, directorially imposed title The Seven Descents Of Myrtle, and has its origins in a 1942 short story) has not been seen in London since 1984, the year after the playwright’s death. It shows the defiant extremity of much of Williams’ later work, and the almost self-parodic Williams-ness.
Floodwaters are rising around an old house to which Lot, “an impotent, one-lunged sissy” in his own words, returns with his new bride Myrtle, a former showgirl in both the literal and euphemistic senses. His mixed-race half-brother Chicken, who has been running the farm on Lot’s behalf, is equal parts Stanley Kowalski and Caliban, and begins to work on Myrtle for possession of both her and the house. Sexual, tubercular and inundal climaxes all more or less coincide towards the end of a long night.
Ruth Sutcliffe’s design sets a number of slow water drips falling onto a stage which is dominated by a huge mudslide, as if the house had already been half-buried after the levee broke. This is seldom more than half-lit, so even in the studio setting of The Print Room the three players’ acting in Lucy Bailey’s production needs to be bodily and vocal rather than facial. The combination of southern American accents sitting erratically in British mouths, and grappling with some of Williams’ most untamed language, is not a propitious one: “The moon is out like the bleary eye of a drunkard,” declares Lot, or as the twanging vowels usually render him, Laot. Joseph Drake in this role seems far less at ease than he was as another inhabitant of the same region, Vernon God Little, a few months ago at the Young Vic. David Sturzaker broods and roars as Chicken, and the descents of Myrtle are certainly not into lower vocal frequencies in Fiona Glascott’s portrayal. It is a challenging work, certainly, but I am unpersuaded that it is a challenge worth facing.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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