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Is Tenn's Kingdom Come?

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No-one is going to suggest that Kingdom of Earth at the Print Room in Westbourne Grove is a lost Tennessee Williams masterpiece. But in Williams's centenary year, and in Lucy Bailey's production, is seems infinitely more worthwhile than most plays around at the moment.

A programme note explains how the play has its origin in a short story Williams wrote many years earlier, based on an experience on the road with a young Mexican and his virgin wife, a Manhattan prostitute. 

The glorious first title in 1968 was Seven Descents of Myrtle. At the Print Room -- which Bailey and Anda Winters are successfully establishing as an essential venue -- the brilliant Fiona Glascott does indeed descend as Myrtle at least seven times; down the side of a mud slurry which represents the flood-threatened farmland in the Mississippi Delta. Finally, she goes down on her new husband's half-brother.

The waspish Rex Reed summed up the play in 1970 as a flop about a dying transvestite who marries a Southern birdbrain on a TV show to keep his Negro half-brother from inheriting the family plantation, adding that it bore no resemblance to any human beings living or dead who ever inhabited Uncle Remus country or anywhere else.

We can give Rex ten out of ten for Milton Shulman like plot pithiness, but a big fat zero for psychological assessment. The characters are grotesque, sure, but they are magnificently so.

And I particularly like the way Bailey makes the ground move, literally, between them as they slip and slither on the dangerous terrain of affection and tentative sexual games playing.

The first British production was at the Bristol Old Vic studio in 1978, by which time Seven Descents of Myrtle had been re-written and re-launched as Kingdom of Earth. The director was Mike Newell, later better known as the film director responsible for Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Pete Postlethwaite played the retarded half-brother Chicken, and former Almeida Theatre director Jonathan Kent -- wish I'd seen this -- was the effete, consumptive Lot, with the magisterial late Gillian Barge as Myrtle (no birdbrain actress she).

By the time Hampstead Theatre presented the London premiere in 1984 -- choreographer Kenneth MacMillan directed Stephen Rea as Chicken, Nichola McAuliffe as Myrtle and David Taylor as Lot -- the anti-Williams movement was in full cry, far less justifiable than the so-called Rattigan back lash.

Rattigan didn't write a really good play after 1952, whereas the Williams oeuvre since arguably his last great play, The Night of the Iguana in 1961, is rich in wild, experimental work glistening with shards of poetry and poignancy.

The Print Room is differently arranged, and excitingly designed, each time you visit. Lucy Bailey has now directed the first three productions of compelling, imperfect dramas by Pasolini, Alan Ayckbourn and Tennessee Williams. 

Actor Jasper Britton was in the first, and he was in attendance last night, pouring the freely dispensed bubbly before the show (the premises are unlicensed for alcohol) and revealing that he's currently working as a despatch rider. Not only that, he may be giving up the theatre altogether. That really would be a tragedy: casting directors unite!

The Print Room itself, an old 1950s warehouse, is oddly difficult to find, situated in a sort of Bermuda Triangle between Paddington, Notting Hill and Royal Oak. My options from north London are myriad, and I explored two more of them last night, walking down Bishop's Bridge Road into Westbourne Grove from Paddington, and returning by 27 bus to Chalk Farm: a proper outing, with a decent reward at the end of it.

Upstairs alongside the theatre, in a rickety damp room that could be a flop house in the Deep South, there's an exhibition of fine photography by Robert Polidori of the New Yorker showing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

In the play, the floods are rising and the county is half under water. Bailey and designer Ruth Sutcliffe have both reflected this chaos and devised a dramatic premonition of it in their brave and beautiful presentation.


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