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Rory Mullarkey is a rising-star playwright who pens formally dizzying, hyper-inventive plays that look like nothing else out there. His work’s been performed at the National Theatre, Royal Court and Barbican, he speaks multiple languages, and he has a sideline in writing opera libretti.
He is an extremely clever man, and right now he is very, very excited about a tank. Like, an actual tank. A small one, but nonetheless a tank, with tracks and a gun turret and everything. We are at a place called Leisure Matters in Hampshire, an 80-acre woodland outdoor activity site where you can play laser tag, throw axes at stuff and, in Mullarkey’s case, drive miniature tanks. They are to have a starring role in ‘Pity’, the almost preposterously ambitious new comedy that marks his debut in the Royal Court’s big Downstairs theatre.
‘I didn’t necessarily think it would be stageable,’ he says. ‘And then Chloe [Lamford, his designer and collaborator] sent us a video of this place. I was still sceptical – would the tank guy pick up his phone? Can the Royal Court stage support the weight of the tanks? Will they pay for it? But it’s happening and it’s a thrill.’
The almost unclassifiable play was originally born out of conversations with Lamford about doing something in the vein of the great central European town square plays, pieces in which strange things happen in a single, municipal space – like Eugene Ionesco’s ‘Rhinoceros’ or Peter Handke’s ‘The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other’.
‘Pity’ is so wilfully subversive of convention that it barely has characters but, loosely speaking, it follows two lovers named Person and Daughter as an escalating series of bizarre things happen around them. They reach something like a climax when a couple of feuding warlords invade the square and have a tank battle.
Along the way there are fatal lightning bolts, ghosts, an ice-cream van, and the Prime Minister getting shot and singing a song about sandwiches. It is utterly absurd, but the studious Mullarkey possesses a definite logic.
‘I’m interested in the idea of how life might unfold if it was like how it was on your phone,’ says Mullarkey, ‘and you just scroll through a massive parade of disaster.’
‘Pity’ is complete anarchy and – although it’s going to be dependent on Lamford’s ability to realise the madness – it’s one of the most audaciously funny scripts I’ve read in recent times. It has a crazed, tossed-off quality, but Mullarkey provides a sound intellectual underpinning for the weirdness.
‘The Prime Minister comes on and sings a song about a sandwich,’ he notes, ‘and though that is extremely silly, I think it’s as realistic that a prime minister would sing a song about a sandwich as it is that a prime minister would give a measured and extremely analytic, on-the-money speech about the state of the world right now.’
‘Pity’ is a dark satire on the ever-present possibility of total societal collapse that also pokes mischievous holes in the very idea of conventional narratives, which Mullarkey doesn’t have a lot of time for. ‘When I’m watching a more conventional play, I can tell what’s going to happen five minutes in and then you’re sitting there for two hours,’ he says. ‘Our attention spans work a bit differently than perhaps they did in Ibsen’s day, so I wanted to write something that would feed that need for events that surprise, rather than being: no, theatre is a fenced off space where we have to build plays like we did 100 years ago.’
Most drama struggles to really convey the chaos of life. ‘Pity’ may actually exceed it.
‘This world is one in which chaotic, funny, bizarre, tragic events are all jammed up against each other in a strange mish-mash,’ Mullarkey says. ‘I just want to make a play that reflects that.’
‘Pity’ is at the Royal Court. Until Aug 11