“I have no gift for filling up a page”
The Hope Theatre’s Gothic Season continues with The Worst Was This – a steampunkish take on Elizabethan London where the troubled relationship between two guys named Will and Chris plays out in a local hostelry, The Wayward Sisters’ Bar and Grill. You might know them better by their last names, Shakespeare and Marlowe, but make no mistake, this is no ordinary take on the authorship question.
For we’re in a parallel world where war and plague has devastated the land and the three sisters who run the pub have to eke out a living by taking inspiration from Mrs Lovett in recycling corpses for their meat pies. Marlowe, left disfigured after a street brawl and cared for by Odette, clearly holds a torch for aspiring handsome actor Will but long-hidden secrets threaten to bubble up and it is soon apparent that there’s little place for affection in this cruel world.
O’Brien has written his fantasia in both verse and prose and as he directs himself, is able to let the cast of six have fun with it – emphasising its iambic pentameter here, toying with anachronistic details there, stressing the morbid imagery everywhere. Silent movie-esque captions add atmosphere (and much needed narrative clarity) and amidst all the strangeness, some effective moments are cultivated, particularly where Robin Hellier’s disfigured Marlowe and Sarah Barron’s Agatha are concerned.
But The Worst Was This is strange at best and too often baffling elsewhere. The lack of specificity about the way in which the world has got to where it has is frustrating and inconsistent – as a colleague pointed out, they all have great fun mocking vegans but if there’s so little meat around that they’re eating human flesh, surely everyone is more or less vegan by default. And who are the people that handyman Bones keeps killing for the sisters, is no-one missing them?
The play is much stronger when dealing with the incongruities of human relationships, particularly when under stress. Agatha’s conflict about whether to settle for a man who adores her over her beloved scientific endeavours; Will and Chris’ symbiotic connection a convincing – though by no means definitive – take on the creative process, further complicated by a love triangle straight out of his – or should that be their… – tragedies… Fascinating if flawed, The Worst Was This is nevertheless an interesting addition to an interesting season – now bring on Her Aching Heart!