Kingdom Of Earth
DIRECTOR: Fred Abrahamse
CAST: Anthea Thompson, Marcel Meyer, Nicholas Dallas
VENUE: Artscape Arena, Cape Town
Also known as The Seven Descents of Myrtle, this stage play is seldom performed and this particular version started off at the annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival to great critical acclaim.
On at the intimate Arena Theatre at Artscape, it features a gorgeously detailed set (by director Fred Abrahamse) which incorporates moving water into the sound and lighting design and gives us three rooms – an upstairs bedroom to which Lot (Dallas) decamps quite early on, a chandelier-dominated sitting room with gold chairs which Myrtle (Thompson) finds oh-so fine and Chicken’s (Meyer) kitchen with its basic silverware and scary trapdoor.
Picking up the programme is also worth your while as it goes much further than most local productions with some interesting excerpts from essays on the play as well as details about the playwright and his works.
While this play usually centres on Lot, a sickly, effete transvestite with mommy issues, director Abrahamse foreground the role of the Myrtle from the title with excellent effect.
Thompson was born to play this role – she easily vacillates between mother, whore and virgin as the former showgirl and now new bride Myrtle. She flutters between the two men with some of the funniest lines, comfortable in her skin, questioning their behaviour with her very existence.
Lot brings Myrtle home in rural Mississippi to an about-to-be flooded home, inhabited by his half-brother, and as the play progresses you realise he’s only done so because he needs her help to steal the property back from Chicken.
Either the “seven descents” refers to how many times Myrtle climbs the stairs down to Chicken, or maybe it references the whole seven dances of the veil, but either way she is the one who slowly unmasks herself to show exactly what she will do to survive.
A major theme that runs through the work of playwright Tennessee Williams is the reconciliation of forces and facts of life, so we have Myrtle teetering between the cultured, refined but decidedly unmasculine Lot and the very virile and manly but oh-so uncouth Chicken.
Her opinion of what she needs to survive and what will make a life worth living shifts as the outside natural force of the storm strips away the thin veil of culture holding back the more natural side of human life where the need to survive rules all.
Nature and desire are celebrated and as the evening progresses and Myrtle shuttles back and forth, Lot has his own struggle to deal with as his natural masculine competitiveness competes with his frustration at not being the woman he so desperately wants to be.
And then Chicken explains the title, which is part of his life philosophy. To the social outcast there is nothing in the whole world, in the whole kingdom of Earth, that could compare to the one thing that’s able to happen between a man and a woman. For him, that is perfect.
It is also the one thing he struggles to find because he is totally on the outside of society since in 1960s Mississippi he’s suspected of having Negro blood in him and therefore is not to be touched with a barge pole.
The racial aspect of the play is downplayed, bringing to the fore the universality of the idea that in order to survive people will do just about anything.
While Meyer manages to bring out the sullenness in his wounded Chicken character, his on again/off again accent does throw you a bit, but Dallas stays in loony, frustrated character throughout.
The play belongs to Thompson though, in her hot-pink ensemble and perfect comic timing, caught between nature and culture.