BWW Reviews: Passionate KINGDOM OF EARTH Impresses at the Artscape Arena
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by David Fick
During the festive season, the theatre scene in Cape Town seems almost exclusively limited to light entertainment. While comedy shows, cabarets and musical revues have their place, it is glorious to be able to immerse oneself in some serious theatre, particularly when a rare opportunity to see one of Tennessee Williams's more obscure works, KINGDOM OF EARTH, beautifully performed in a fine production, presents itself.
Set in the ancestral home of the Ravenstock family, the play tells the story of two half-brothers, Chicken and Lot, and Myrtle, a woman caught between them and the values they represent. Lot, impotent and tubercular, has married Myrtle, a former showgirl, and brought her to the RavenStock homestead on the eve of an impending flood. Chicken, vital and robust, has a deed declaring that he will inherit the place when Lot dies. As Chicken and Lot battle for dominance, using Myrtle as their pawn, Myrtle's world of romantic delusions comes crashing down around her, igniting the conflicts that drive the play towards its climax.
As both a literary and theatrical work, KINGDOM OF EARTH has something of a chequered history. Running only 29 performances in its original Broadway engagement, the play (then produced under the title, THE SEVEN DESCENTS OF MYRTLE) was criticised for its similarities to Williams's earlier plays, and echoes of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, SUMMER AND SMOKE and ORPHEUS DESCENDING are certainly there. In hindsight, this particular criticism seems less valid now that we are able to view Williams's plays as a body of work that explores a series of ideas through the refractory glass of a master playwright's mind. Williams himself viewed the play as a companion piece to CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, with the two pieces linked by theme despite vast differences in milieu and narrative.
Where the play may prompt deserved criticism, however, is in the manner that Williams handles the challenge of balancing the melodrama, dark humour and grotesque beauty he injects into the script. Williams treads a fine line here, not always successfully - particularly in the second act. Williams finds Myrtle, Lot and Chicken more compelling than the narrative into which he places them and the simplicity of the plot strains under the weight of these three complex characters during the final three scenes of the play.
This production meets that challenge head on and the rewards are prodigious. Director Fred Abrahamse has brought the play to life in a series of evocative images, not only in the pictures he creates with the actors' bodies, but also in his design of the set and lighting. The stage is bordered by gutters of water, rippling over mirrors and lit so as to cast ever-shifting patterns of light and shadow over the stage. Upon first sight, this transforms the stage into a world where Williams's lyrical, selective and heightened realism makes sense. This expressionist masterstroke is delicately supported by composer Charl-Johan Lingenfelder's music and the soundscape that evocatively reminds the audience of the looming flood that serves as a catalyst for the action on stage.
The three cast members play off one another effortlessly, while also delineating their individual characters clearly. Marcel Meyer delivers compelling work as the masculine, earthbound Chicken. Starting off menacing and brooding, he reveals Chicken's tortured soul bit by bit so that both Myrtle and the audience are seduced by him as the play progresses. As Lot, Nicholas Dallas shifts between a kind of epicene languor and a sharp, ugly wit that confounds Myrtle, but which is seen for what it is by Chicken. His physical work in the role is beautifully executed.
Anthea Thompson arguably has the most difficult job as Myrtle. The play shifts its focus from upstairs to downstairs, from Lot to Chicken and from romantic fantasies to prosaic realities and the element that all of these shifts have in common is Myrtle. While Lot is designed to elicit pity and Chicken empathy, the actress playing Myrtle has to win the audience's sympathy. Thompson does that, and more. Her Myrtle is a complex creature: brassy yet vulnerable, secure about herself in some ways, but self-deprecating in others. Thompson earns our compassion and this plays no small part in the production's success.
KINGDOM OF EARTH might prove to be something of a tough sell over the Christmas season, but it is a play that deserves good houses. There is no other piece on Cape Town stages between now and the end of 2012 that will give you the same complex experience or the kind of catharsis that William's work offers.
KINGDOM OF EARTH runs at the Artscape Arena until 30 December 2012. Tickets are available through Computicket.