Review: ‘The Worst Was This’
William Shakespeare’s works may have few rivals in the pantheon of classic English literature, but just where did he get his ideas? Sofia Quaglia went to the Hope Theatre to find out…
Matte O’Brien’s The Worst Was This is a quirky modern rendition of the myth that Shakespeare’s plays were secretly penned by the mysterious Christopher Marlowe. Forming part of the Hope Theatre’s Gothic Series, the Elizabethan tale is told with a very macabre yet humorous spirit.
The idea raised in the final lines of the Bard’s ‘Sonnet 80’ – “The worst was this; my love was my decay” – seems to be the running theme of the piece, as the lives of each character cripple under the oppressive power of their desires.
After a gruesome pub brawl, Marlowe is left disfigured and hides away in a sketchy pub run by three odd sisters. Shakespeare, convinced of his friend’s death, finds his way to this abandoned tavern after receiving a craftily- written sonnet that compares him to Summer’s Eve.
Once he is reunited with his old companion, Bill agrees to publicly represent him while selling his plays, in exchange for Marlowe’s mentoring of how to become a superior playwright.
They start a tumultuous artistic boot camp together in the back of the tavern, conceiving lusty love triangles with the sisters, shrouded in a fog of jealousies and secrets while plagued by the torments of poetry. These characters then go through a rapid but believable process of evolution over the course of the tale.
Ben Clifford is endearing as he portrays a clueless and innocent version of Shakespeare, although his character arc is admittedly as the least carefully-structured of the lot. Robin Hellier, meanwhile, has just the right anguish and tone of voice to play the bedevilled Marlowe, seeking answers to an unjustified love he cannot freely display and thus resulting in frowns and yells aplenty.
The three sisters and their affairs provide a much-needed uplifting undertone to the tragedy of events, with their players modernizing the plot by bringing an upbeat speed to their dialogue.
Beth Kovarik is quite vexing and delusional as the youngest sister Odette, complaining about her desperate love for Chris while staying oblivious to his real interests.
Rue, played by Lauren Hurwood, is by far my favorite of the trio, being depicted as the drunken and ignored – not to mention complacent – sibling and yet the most mischievous as she’s secretly plotting behind everybody’s backs.
Sarah Barron, portraying the oldest sister Agatha, is delightful but devoid of novelty, rendered callous and witch-like after an apocalyptic war and the death of her father. She therefore spends her days performing “scientific research” on corpses butchered by her naive lover Bones (Mark Jeary).
This thin secondary plot depicting their gruesome and grotesque business of murder and cannibalism provides an alternative dimension to the play, giving it the bizarre and funny aura it would have lacked otherwise.
Better yet, the whole script is written in refined iambic-pentameter with a linguistic style that is rich yet very accessible, combining intricate rhymes with a curse word or two here and there, not to mention countless references to – and quotes from – Shakespeare’s myriad works. It’s so skillfully embroidered with literary innuendos that many of them only become clear with hindsight.
Overall, The Worst Was This ends up being a rustic and almost punky version of what would otherwise have been too daunting for a pub play.
The balance maintained between deep dialogue and fresh modern flourishes does wonders for the production, as does the way that its circular structure inevitably brings the audience back to where they began, powerfully driving its core messages home.