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Pity review at Royal Court, London – ‘absurdism, anarchy and excess’

The cast of Pity at Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

There’s an excitingly disruptive quality to the opening moments of Pity.  The audience enters the Royal Court via the rear of the building. There’s an onstage tombola, an ice cream cart, and a four-piece brass band playing the Floral Dance. But this turns out to be the highpoint of this frequently frustrating absurdist fable.

Rory Mullarkey is clearly fascinated by signifiers of Englishness. His plays often juxtapose extreme violence with village greens, butchery with bunting. In 2014’s The Wolf from the Door, he envisioned a full-blown revolution, an uprising of the middle classes led by Anna Chancellor in a Jaeger trench coat. In last year’s Saint George and the Dragon, the problems faced by the world overwhelm England’s patron saint.

In his new play Mullarkey ploughs a similar furrow, depicting total societal collapse against a backdrop of department stores and market squares.

A man, known in the text simply as Person and played by The Stage Debut Award-winner Abraham Popoola, narrates his day. He meets Daughter (Sophia Di Martino) and they couple up. Then everything starts to fall apart. People are struck by lightning. Things explode. War breaks out. There are snipers and warlords. Politicians turn up and are predictably ineffectual. Refugees roam the countryside.

Sam Pritchard’s production is admirably bold but he struggles to convey the carnage in a theatrically satisfying manner, resorting to cartoonish excess. Designer Chloe Lamford has really gone for it too, carpeting the stage with green and edging it with hazard tape, suspending a canvas sky on the back wall in front of a curtain of black plastic streamers. The committed cast deliver their lines in flat, affectless tones. Chintzy cushions and other debris drop from the ceiling at regular intervals. A rain machine is deployed and there are pyrotechnics galore.

While the creation of mess can make for gleeful theatre, here it just feels relentless and, even less forgivably, kind of boring. A production that features Sandy Grierson in an actual tank, the ground fracturing beneath the characters’ feet, copious explosions and a proper brass band,  shouldn’t feel like such a slog to watch.

The attempts at anarchy feel managed and tiresome. There are however passages of wit in the script – Mullarkey can be very funny –and moments of invention and humour in the staging. There’s an excellent joke with an angel and a sequence in which Popoola, Di Martino and Siobhan McSweeney, as a post-apocalyptic postwoman, sit under a bivouac and recite a string of words they find beautiful – including “emolliate” and “propinquity” – as shells explode around them. While this idea of the transcendency of language feels laboured, there’s a potency and poetry to the scene that’s lacking elsewhere.

Pity feels like a case of a writer scratching an itch. But it’s hard to tell exactly what Mullarkey is trying to say with it. Yes, we live in distressingly unstable times and our Englishness will not save us if the world burns, but that’s hardly revelatory.

Designer Chloe Lamford: ‘Theatre designers make more than an object – I design feeling’

 

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Verdict
An absurdist fable about societal collapse is scuppered by cartoonish excess
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