Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Theatre review: 'Tis Pity She's A Whore

Last year Cheek By Jowl provided me with one of my favourite shows of 2011 with their Russian Tempest. And the last time I saw 'Tis Pity She's A Whore it starred Eve Best and Jude Law as the siblings who think incest makes the heart grow fonder. So on a couple of different levels this was a show that had a lot to live up to for me. John Ford's play is one of few Jacobean tragedies to have held on to much of its shock value thanks to its incestuous theme, but Declan Donnellan doesn't sit back and let this do all the work for him. Nick Ormerod's blood-red set is Annabella's bedroom, the bed where the dirty deed is done is the centrepiece, and among the posters on her wall True Blood takes pride of place, a clue maybe that subtlety isn't going to be the key note. Annabella (Lydia Wilson) is a much sought-after beauty and heiress with a number of dedicated suitors, chief among them Soranzo (Jack Hawkins.) But she only has eyes for her brother Giovanni (Jack Gordon) and when he confesses similar feelings towards her the scene is set for sex, violence and synchronised dance sequences.

Donnellan's expressionistic modern-dress production makes great use of stylised movement and tableaux, utilising the actors whose characters aren't in any given scene as a sort of chorus. Editing the text and packing the action into 120 minutes without interval, it's a daringly full-on approach but it doesn't sacrifice storytelling in the process, and alongside the Giovanni/Annabella story we get the subplot of a widow (Suzanne Burden,) convinced Soranzo will marry her, and driven to a murderous revenge plot with his servant Vasques (Laurence Spellman) when he marries Annabella instead. (Annabella earlier told him she doesn't want to marry him, but if SHE ABSOLUTELY HAS TO MARRY SOMEONE for some reason he's first on the list. But this still doesn't tip him off when she suddenly changes her mind, that her oven might no longer be a bun-free area.)

You'd expect a high-concept, well-acted production, and you get these; you'd also expect a very sexy production from Cheek By Jowl and that's also very much the case. In fact the men's shirts seem to fall off with such regularity and such little provocation that I suspect Donnellan is somewhat taking the piss out of himself and his propensity for putting bare male flesh on stage. David Mumeni and Jack Gordon also waste little time in getting their arses out; and when Lizzie Hopley as Annabella's maid Putana (literally "whore," for anyone still under any illusions that Jacobean tragedy and subtlety might ever converge) meets a grisly end, she has her tongue bitten off by a coke-dealing male stripper (Jimmy Fairhurst.) Again here what the company has done is tap into a modern equivalent of the no-holds-barred, crowd-pleasing shockers these plays were originally written to be. A mention has to go to Judith Greenwood's lighting, whose pools of light in among huge areas of shadow provide much of the show's visual identity.

Richard's not a Shakespeare fan so it surprised me that he wanted to give other writers of the period a go; he seems to have had the right idea in this case though as he said he really enjoyed it and found the storytelling techniques clear. Though I didn't love this quite as much as The Tempest it's still a vibrant and original take on the play that stays true to its spirit while being vividly contemporary. And as is apparently The Law for Jacobean tragedies in 2012, this also features a wedding disco.

'Tis Pity She's A Whore by John Ford is booking until the 10th of March at Silk Street Theatre (returns only) then continuing on tour to New York and Madrid.

Running time: 2 hours straight through.

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