A 1968 play Tennessee Williams called his “funny melodrama” is a good deal better, in this intense revival by Lucy Bailey, than I remember it at Hampstead Theatre many moons ago, directed, weirdly, by the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan.
At that time, shortly after Williams’s death in 1983, there was a prevalent critical orthodoxy about these messy, sometimes undramatic character studies dating from the playwright’s self-confessed “stoned age.” They were no good.
But Bailey suggests a new vivacity in this bald tale of a dying transvestite, Lot, returning to the family farmhouse in the flood-threatened Mississippi Delta with a new bride, Myrtle; his plan is to wrest the property from his half-caste half-brother, Chicken, and redeem some notion of his mother’s spiritual aristocracy.
Designer Ruth Sutcliffe fills the acting area with huge grey slurry, a mini-mountain of lava, as though on Lanzarote: the flood and the hurricane have come already, and Oliver Fenwick’s lighting picks out the trio in a sickly silhouette: Joseph Drake’s jumpy, white-suited, one-lunged Lot has bizarrely married Fiona Glascott’s brilliantly articulated Myrtle – afflicted with a wheezy, whistling asthma attack -- on a TV show that very day in Memphis.
Lot’s a ruined beauty, with an ivory cigarette-holder, while Myrtle has dabbled in show business and fancies the prospect of material stability and social improvement. Instead, she finds Chicken, a heavy-breathing Caliban in David Sturzaker’s physically menacing performance, who really does feel “this island’s mine;” and the play’s dynamic switches to their sexual confrontation and compromise.
Originally called “The Seven Descents of Myrtle,” the play certainly reveals how she goes down on Chicken while the flood rises outside. “A parlour with gold chairs is like a dream,” she declares. Lot notes the moon shines with “the bleary eye of a drunkard.”
They’re both transfigured characters, in reality and imagination, and not even the final descent of Lot in his mother’s clothes can seem too ridiculous. Bailey’s production highlights the humanity in the fevered wrangling over deeds and ownership, and the play surprises in its heartfelt poetic beauty and premonition of natural disaster: half the county is under water, and the crest is coming. It all sounds more familiar than we dared fear a quarter of a century ago.