“Anything worth having or doing in this world is risky”
Terence Rattigan has received a lot of attention in his centenary year with productions of his shows filling theatres across the land, but it is also the anniversary of Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday this year which has been generally marked by much more low-key productions of his lesser-known works, including this 1968 work Kingdom of Earth which is presented at the West London venue The Print Room.
Set in the 1960s in an isolated ruined farmhouse in the Mississippi Delta, a sick young man Lot returns to his birthplace with his new wife, showgirl Myrtle. But he arrives to find that there is a huge impending flood about to engulf the region and his estranged half-brother Chicken is living in the house. As Lot retires to the comfort of his mother’s old bedroom and wardrobe and his illness takes a turn for the worse, Chicken seizes the chance to ensure that his legacy and claim to the family property is not affected by the presence of his rival’s new wife. Myrtle is thus caught in the power struggle between these brothers as they battle for ownership, and not just of the house.
The flexibility of the space in The Print Room is clearly going to be one of its key selling points: Ruth Sutcliffe’s design here creating the dilapidated farmhouse feel from a few pieces of broken furniture scattered over a mound of earth in one corner of the auditorium, the ceiling continually leaking and the sounds of the tempestuous weather never far away. It makes for a highly atmospheric scenario and the precariousness of Myrtle’s journey up and down the muddy hill, in heels, cleverly echoes the trickiness of her situation, poised between these two half-brothers.
Williams’ writing is rather typical here, there’s no great surprises and it is very much part of his canon with recognisable archetypes and themes all over the show. But it remains powerful and moving stuff, leavened by some nicely comic moments and an aching sexuality, all of which are served beautifully by the cast of three. The salacious language drips off David Sturzaker’s tongue as Chicken: “Don’t you like a man-sized instrument?” he leerily enquires at one point and he’s even to be found pleasuring himself downstage whilst a scene plays up top between Myrtle and Lot. He is a virile presence who commands the stage and as he seeks to gain possession, of both the house and Myrtle, it is hard to resist his masculine charms. Joseph Drake, fresh from his accomplished stage debut in Vernon God Little and the news of his casting in the Chichester Rattigan’s Nijinsky and The Deep Blue Sea, shows a real maturity as the deeply ill, transvestite-leaning and camp Southern gentleman Lot.
But Fiona Glascott as Myrtle is the one working almost constantly throughout the show, whether tending to her sick husband atop the muddy mound or dancing around the negotiations and heavily sexual flirtations with his half-brother downstairs. She’s a woman all-too-aware of her position and what needs to be done in order to secure it, and there’s a canniness to her that Glascott portrays beautifully, even in her most vulnerable moments, as she employs her strongest assets to manipulate Chicken where she needs him. Altogether a fitting centenary celebration of a playwright who one feels really ought to be getting more attention this year.