Pity (Royal Court Theatre)

Posted: July 20, 2018 in Theatre

Writer: Rory Mullarkey      Director: Sam Pritchard

⭐⭐⭐⭐

In 1960, Orson Welles’ production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros appeared at the Royal Court. In the 58 years of innovative theatre that have followed, apart from a 2007 revival of the same play, it is doubtful if the famous venue has seen anything quite so utterly bonkers as Rory Mullarkey’s absurdist, anarchic, apocalyptic new comedy.  Yes, Caryl Churchill’s 2016 play, Escaped Alone, works on similar themes, contrasting the calm of traditional England with the chaotic, disintegrating world outside it, but even that does not come close.

The setting is an English market town that has no coffee bar, but boasts a multitude of ice-cream sellers. The audience walks in across the green-carpeted stage, greeted by a brass band playing the likes of Colonel Bogey and Floral Dance. A professor arrives with his daughter, complains about the awful town and is promptly struck dead by fork lightning. Daughter survives, she and a stranger assure each other, for the first of many times, “I’m alright” and the pair marry. All goes well for a few minutes until the department store in which daughter works is flattened in an explosion. Disaster then follows disaster, all in a single day.

“The plan is to keep bombing until it gets better” a warlord informs us. Characters drop like flies, but the actors, all of equal merit, get re-cycled to play other roles. They are: Paul Bentall, Sandy Grierson, Helena Lymbery, Sophia Di Martino, Siobhán McSweenet, Francesca Mills, Abraham Popoola, Paul G Raymond and Dorian Simpson. A female Prime Minister arrives at the disaster scene to dispense familiar platitudes, a famous actor drops by, only to be devoured by cannibals (“It’s true what they say, famous people really do taste better”) and hungry refugees from elsewhere seek help before being sent on their way.

Much of this is played in the form of trivial nonsense, but the effort (and seeming expense) that goes into Sam Pritchard’s astonishing production guides us towards realising that it is a lot more than just that. Literally, Pritchard throws everything into it from all directions – bombs, bullets, debris, armoured tanks (of the Hamleys variety) and an earthquake all strike. A graphic sequence, performed comically to throbbing club music with a neon-lit red “Atrocities!” sign hovering above the stage, gives a haunting vision of the catastrophes that always follow catastrophes.

Goon-like comedy can inevitably flag if it is not supported by a sturdier structure than Miullarkey builds here and, although the production’s pyrotechnics paper over many weaknesses, the loss of a few of the play’s 100 minutes could perhaps have made it all a little sharper. Amid the almost constant bombardment of verbal and visual gags, there is a risk that the writer’s serious messages, exposing the fragility of our cosy lifestyles and telling us to be less blinkered when viewing our wide world, could melt from the mind like one of the play’s many ice creams. If this were to happen, it would be the real pity.

Performance date: 19 July 2018

Photo: Helen Murray

This review was originally written for The Reviews Hub: http://www.thereviewshub.com

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