Review: Pity, Royal Court ‘Ludicrous and Sobering’

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It is impossible not to be blown away by the exhilarating brilliance and complete lunacy of this new play from writer Rory Mullarkey. This absurdist comedy dramatises the collapse of the world order in a single day through the eyes of a very ordinary couple (Sophia Di Martino and Abraham Popoola) in a very ordinary British town.

Bomb explosions, random lightning strikes and civil war rip to shreds the fragile fabric of society as the country plunges headlong into chaos and yet all we can do is marvel at designer Chloe Lamford’s extraordinary production design where ice cream vans and tombolas mix with flashing neon signs, AK-47s and atrocities to a hilarious degree.

It is impossible not to smile, impossible not to be swept up, and truly impossible not to feel for the stage management crew who must be putting in superhuman efforts each night to pull off such a furious festival of fun. But what also impresses is the cast and direction from Sam Pritchard.

The cast work their socks playing a vast array of characters – from prime ministers to postwomen – as the ordinary couple try and navigate this suddenly strange terrain. Snipers and militias come and go but with the absurdism ramped up to 11 with balletic interludes and exhilarating raves. The cast must be shattering themselves out with their efforts (HUGE bravo!) but so much praise must also go to Sam Pritchard (whose work in B and Grimly Handsome I’ve also loved) who has caught the mood and tone of this production emphatically.

The question we are left with is, what is the point of all this craziness? Even the most bizarre of productions is looking to disrupt and challenge us – so what is Rory getting at here?

When you’re caught up in the madcap craziness of what is in front of you, it is impossible for the mind to settle, to focus and consider what is being said. But in the stillness of the tube ride home, I got it. Well, I think so.

For this is a play about our ambivalence. The ordinary couple caught up in the middle remain ordinary and unaffected. They seem to be the calm in the centre of the storm around them. Then it clicks – it isn’t calmness; it’s ambivalence. And, more than this, the joke seems to be on us, the audience. For if we are distracted so easily by the flashing lights and dance numbers, then we’re not paying attention, are we?

There is a post on Twitter that compares Pity to Childish Gambino’s This is America and this is both an interesting observation and a tricky one. Because in a sense it works. This is America sees Donald Glover demonstrate how easily we can be diverted from what’s important and unjust. And that’s exactly what happens in Pity – provided the pyrotechnics, waterfalls of flipflops and mini-tanks keep coming, we keep laughing, irrespective of the destruction of the world order that is happening in front of us.

But what This is America also does is squarely focus on the *causes* of that injustice – in This is America’s case, racism.

At no point in Pity does it even glance at the sources of hate that would bring about the collapse of civil society. It’s a curious omission and one that I’m still wrestling with.

I get that adding themes of racism and misogyny may have made the writing overly complex and confusing. It may also have tarnished the absurdist humour and brought a weight in that would have been hard to navigate. But it does, if anything, make the comparison with This is America one to be treated carefully.

What Pity does do is highlight the increasingly uncomfortable truth that, as the world collapses around us, provided we’re unharmed, we are prepared to let everything else go to hell. Here, the oft-repeated phrase, ‘I’m alright,’ morphs rather sinisterly from an opportunity for potential bonding to one that increasingly defines are self-first attitude. And in a production filled with such absurdist joy and hilarity, that is a sobering and frightening truth.

Royal Court Theatre, London, to August 11, 2018.
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Helen Murray

Production team:
Director: Sam Pritchard
Designer: Chloe Lamford
Costume Designer: Annemarie Woods
Lighting Designer: Anna Watson
Sound Designer: Pete Malkin

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