There’s an exquisite cruelty to Tennessee Williams’s work; a lacerating nostalgia for a seamy and corrupted South that pities no one. The rarely-performed Kingdom of Earth, which condenses this sneering despair into a claustrophobic three-hander, offers as little respite to the audience as the pile of earth on stage does to the characters who scrabble about it and try to call it home. But if this play represents Williams at his most arch and unforgiving, it also shows him at his funniest. And it is to the great credit of Lucy Bailey, as director, and a cast of talented young actors, that this production manages to bring out something human as well as brittle, dark and lost.
Lot, a dandified young man whose physical frailty is apparent from the moment he slumps into one of his beloved (now-dead) mother’s parlour chairs, has returned to reclaim his childhood home, a decrepit farmhouse in the dank Mississippi Delta. Accompanying him is his new wife, Myrtle, a self-consciously sassy blond with a survivor’s smile and a voice that could stop traffic. But although the house is dark, they are not alone. Behind the closed kitchen door, pacing and muttering, is Chicken, Lot’s half-brother whose mood is as dark as his complexion. This has been his property for many years and he’s not about to give it up without a fight. Meanwhile, outside, the land groans as the flood waters rise.
This juicy slab of Southern Gothic melodrama flaunts its biblical allusions with glee. Aside from the title itself and continual references to what the characters will do after the flood, Myrtle’s maiden name, Cain, makes it clear, as if further clarification were needed, that we’re watching a conflict of Old Testament proportions unfold between the diametrically opposed brothers. The reason that this doesn’t come across as clumsy is because Williams knows exactly what he’s doing. By placing his characters in such a grand context, he gives their story an almost operatic intensity; archetypes collide with stereotypes in a manner that throws up plenty of dramatic sparks.
The actors are uniformly excellent. As Lot, Joseph Drake is a languid and etiolated presence; a ghostly vision in white, whose carefully modulated and controlled delivery at the start of the play gives way to a rasping, hate-filled hiss as his tuberculosis tightens its grip on his remaining lung. His hollow-eyed appearance towards the end of the play, dressed up in his mother’s clothes and his lips smeared with blood like badly applied lipstick, is a moment of feverish horror. David Sturzaker, on the other hand, imbues Chicken with a powerful and threatening vitality, his brow perpetually furrowed with distrust, suspicion and lust. The anger in his voice as he recounts to a terrified Myrtle the story of his mixed-race parentage and its effect on his life is like a rumble of thunder.
If Lot and Chicken are feuding brothers inspired by scripture, Myrtle is their sacrifice. Fiona Glascott is wonderful as the increasingly bewildered blonde, who has endured the brutal murder of friends and (it’s strongly implied) life as a prostitute in her quest for success in show business and, ultimately, somewhere to call home. It would have been easy to portray Myrtle unsympathetically; her brashness, love of electrical goods and general relentlessness are a harder sell than, say, the tragedy of Blanche Dubois. But under Bailey’s direction, Glascott dominates the stage. With every crack in her voice, she draws the audience in and shows us the fear behind Myrtle’s facade; she makes us care, and when we laugh, it’s more often with her than at her.
Kingdom of Earth isn’t perfect. There’s something unpleasantly self-hating about Williams’s depiction of the effeminate Lot that no amount of directorial gloss can cover; and Myrtle’s relegation to an inconsistently written plot device and silent witness during the exposition-heavy second half is a shame, particularly in light of Glascott’s charismatic performance. But on the basis of this stellar production, this play is a lot more than a Sixties period piece. Thanks to Bailey’s focused direction and designer Ruth Sutcliffe’s effectively stark and stylised staging – the familial home is no more than a profusion of mud surrounded by dripping water – the play’s problems take second place to its most powerful and enduring point: that, in the end, stripped of self-regard and ambition, we will do what we must to survive.