FringeReview UK 2018
Director Sam Pritchard’s gone with the grain of Mullarkey’s cheery anarchies, echoed in designer Chloe Lamford’s virtuosic Trumpton. Anna Watson’s lighting is as bright as children’s TV. Pete Malkin’s sound juggles bombs and brass, imported war-sound effects, and Tom Deering provides a wittily adroit score. Annemarie Woods has co-ordinated a fantastical set of clothing. Sasha Milavic Davies’ movement is everywhere apparent.
There’s benefits in missed schedules. Seeing Rory Mullarkey’s Pity at the Royal Court Downstairs a week late meant a day after Ionesco’s Exit the King opened at the National. That production begs the question of where the energy in absurdism and sheer theatricality has gone in contemporary theatre.
Naturally Mullarkey’s name should have popped up like one of the dramatist’s cheerful murderers. Almost alone he pursues violence to extremes through an absurdist lens. Where else could you find – as in Pity – a ghost dying of the plague ‘it’s a particularly virulent strain, obviously’ or an angel descending from the flies to the cellarage, answering the protagonist about her identity. ‘Yes but I’m sorry I’m on my way somewhere else.’ It’s that latter image and response that shows how superb Mullarkey is in flashes, and what kins him with 1950s high absurdism, refracted through The Goons, Monty Python and inevitably Sarah Kane – without her transcendent demons.
Director Sam Pritchard’s gone with the grain of Mullarkey’s cheery anarchies in this hundred-minute work, which pushes production and vision to an inspired dottiness which can neuter it; though the text doesn’t brim with sober options. It’s presented as a fabulous experience, audience trooping through a side door through the middle-England greensward in Chloe Lamford’s virtuosic Trumpton, where you’re handed tickets from a tombola, can buy ice-crams (a dominant early motif) where the Fulham band harrumphs everything from Parry’s I Was Glad, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines to Orpheus in the Underworld.
It’s soon split asunder with lightning and a rain of bombs about twenty explosions and a canvas sky with clouds that later does sterling service as a bivouac tent. Anna Watson’s lighting is as bright as children’s TV. Pete Malkin’s sound juggles bombs and brass, imported war-sound effects, and Tom Deering provides a wittily adroit score. We get sexual union danced to Handel’s Semele (‘Endless pleasure’) following rap. When a PM arrives Vivaldi’s Gloria brays, then a Sondheim-esque setting of her confusion over sandwiches as a hopeless response to on-going terrorist atrocities in the middle of a town she still can’t name. Every time a character dies Chopin’s Funeral march plays like a gag. Annemarie Woods has co-ordinated a fantastical set of clothing, particularly for designer armies.
Pity follows a pattern clear from Mullarkey’s second play The Wolf from the Door also at the Court in 2014, as well as the shaggy Saint George and the Dragon at the National late last year. In the first a moral fable centres round a rich aristocrat (Anna Chancellor) grooming an orphan innocent to succeed the throne when the WI and clergy have massacred the governing classes and voluntarily liquidated themselves. It ends too as Pity does, in oddly isolated contentment. But the casual beheading of a Tesco’s deputy-manager teetered between realist utopia and absurdist folk tale, out of its own depth. For one thing it was too brief and undeveloped. Saint George and the Dragon was both more ambitious and far more coherent, if now sprawlingly long with its clear message of no more heroes.
Pity’s a return to the anarchy of The Wolf From the Door. it enjoys the same light touch when it comes to multiple deaths, disembowelling a famous actor who only ‘wants to help’; and eating him.
Abraham Pompoola’s Person – both a commanding presence and warmly diffident – meets a History Professor (Paul Bentall as marvellously pompous as Richard Starkey) and put-upon daughter Sophia Di Martino over ice cream. When the professor’s killed by lightning the couple marry and the day becomes eventful. The last remaining department store’s bombed and the whole populace find themselves out of work then refugees as we descend into civil war with colour-coded factions, a red and blue tank each.
There’s a dance-routine with armies gunning each other down, swapping places and repeating it over and over, (Sasha Milavic Davies’ movement is everywhere apparent). It’s admittedly a ritual too long, ironically ending up static which is a pity since like several routines here it’d work beautifully in a short burst.
Multi-roling along the way are Helen Lymbery’s May-ing Prime Minister and Blue Warlord, Siobhan McSweeney’s looter but later a highlight as Postwoman, Paul G Raymond’s victim and snipers both (including said actor), Dorian Simpson as bodyguard and captain, and beyond Pompoola and Di Martino (who elicits wonder, residence and resignation), three memorable roles. It’s worth picking them out.
Sandy Grierson has some rational sad manager appearances early on but as the Red Warlord and later Doctor he’s in his element and is given some of the best lines in the play in a long harangue, damning the Royal Court audience ‘eating a steady stream of avocados in their skyscrapers… and sleeping with each others’ calligraphy instructors.. and playing pétanque… and playing pétanque… Just because I don’t know what pétanque is…’ As a doctor he rows round in a coffin to inform people they’ll catch their death from him.
Francesca Mills stole the show at the Globe’s recent Two Noble Kinsmen and here she does it again as a co-worker, refugee who drinks poisoned water, or hopeless sniper. Her winning high-energy gags and commedia dell-arte routines mean you’re riveted. It’d be good to see her officially take centre stage
One of the few moments of repose allows the couple to entertain McSweeney’s Postwoman whose Lucky speech slowed down is the poignant still centre of this work as it nears its end. ‘Sal the postwoman, indefatigable, dawn’s first bright messenger, up as the moon scuds liquid-iridescent across the sky’s silver backcloth’ then becomes personal. McSweeney relates this with a pathos to offset glib violence. It’s worth all the bright cannibalism and homeopathic exorcism – if that’s what it is – of real genocides.
Pompoola also impressed at the Globe in Boudica last year and more recently at the Bridge in Julius Caesar. It’s he who lends the central Person a humanity so easy to miss.
It’s the penultimate scene that not only explains the play’s title but in a choric ensemble minus one a single word is repeated. You can see Mullarkey’s 2015 version of the Globe’s Oresteia led to the choral ensembles in Saint George and the Dragon, but here they take on a stark Greek simplicity and we get a flash of tragic farce deepened.
Those receptive to those energies unleashed in the Ionesco, or more fitfully in Saint George and the Dragon will readily see Mullarkey’s almost unique position. Mullarkey’s mined this vein as far as its trace silver allows; he hasn’t had the death-haunting that made Ionesco burn through the absurd to a kind of sublimity in Exit the King. Mullarkey needs to find his own way; after some high-profile shots he’s not quite landed. He can write angels; even write like an angel. Translations haven’t sobered his exuberance. What he writes next might define him.