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The Theatreguide.London Review


Kingdom of Earth
The Print Room    Spring 2011

Tennessee Williams' play, first and last seen in London in 1984, is not a totally successful work. But it has a lot of raw energy and emotional truth, and will hold you through a powerful and engrossing evening. 

Williams famously went into an artistic decline in the 1960s, maintaining his personal vision and poetic expression but losing control over increasingly sprawling, disjointed and unfocussed plays, and Kingdom of Earth shows the signs of this in a repeatedly shifting tone and abrupt changes in characters.

That it succeeds anyway is a tribute not only to the playwright's inherent talent but to an excellent staging by Lucy Bailey that is in some ways superior to the 1984 production.

(I frequently have occasion to see first plays by young writers who have not fully mastered their craft but are clearly real playwrights with real futures. It is sadly instructive to realise that the work of a real playwright in the process of losing his craft looks very similar.)

A tubercular and dying man returns to his family's Mississippi home with a new wife, motivated in part by the opportunity to deprive his hated half-brother of the chance to inherit the estate on his death.

But brother is prepared to fight, even - or perhaps especially - if that involves winning the bride over to his side. Oh, and the river is rising and the whole house is likely to be underwater soon.

There are clearly opportunities for comedy in the situation and the clash between effete aesthete, earthy he-man and flighty bimbo. And the first hour or so of Williams' script wanders among the realms of Mark Twain, Neil Simon and Joe Orton before turning more serious as death, flood and life-changing decisions approach.

Williams' special genius is apparent in the fact that all three characters find and hold our sympathy in spite of having been introduced as near-cartoons, and that each develops a depth and complexity that is believable especially because it is sometimes self-contradictory.

And this is where director Bailey and her actors contribute significantly to the evening's success, as she guides them to find and communicate the reality beneath the grotesques.

Joseph Drake displays the new groom in all his vindictiveness, sexual ambiguity and near-madness, and still invests him with the pathos of a dying man. David Sturzaker's brother is crude, violent, rawly sexual (Think Stanley Kowalski intensified several times over) but also a man fighting for the birthright, in property and happiness, of which he has unjustly been deprived.

And Fiona Glascott digs beneath the woman's bubbly surface to layers of both passion and self-awareness, so that we can never be sure whether her wavering of loyalties is sincere or looking out for the main chance - or, indeed, whether there's any difference.

I have only two criticisms to make of director Bailey - first, that too often she has the actors race through scenes, not giving the characters time to think or react; and second, that she allowed Ruth Sutcliffe's misguided stage design.

Evidently imagining that the threatened flood has come and gone, Sutcliffe replaced the called-for interior sets (which have symbolic significance that is lost here) with a mountain of dirt, so that you spend a good deal of the evening worrying for the safety of the actors as they gingerly try to retain their footing while climbing up and down its surface.

Gerald Berkowitz



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Review of Kingdom Of Earth - Print Room 2011

 

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