‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore

‘Tis Pity She’s A WhoreCheek by Jowl at the Barbican, until 10 March

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore does not make itself the easiest of plays to love; even given the general sense of impending and unbending doom and attendant cast of flawed humanity that appears as a hallmark of Jacobean tragedies, John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity… is unsentimental, hard as flint and packed full of characters that do not exactly strain to gain the audiences sympathy.

It is difficult to imagine what was made of it in the 17th Century but its tale of intrigue, incest, and murder is one that retains a genuinely shocking impact two centuries later, whereas other plays, such as The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi or The Changeling struggle to escape the period detail of their plots.

The effectiveness of the impact may have much to do with the key subject matter of ‘Tis Pity. Whereas the actions of characters may appear a little antiquated to a modern audience – suicide and a bloodbath in the course of avenging another seems a little outré these days – incest remains one of the last remaining taboo areas. One needs only watch the end of Polanski’s neo-noir masterpiece Chinatown to see that it retains a visceral power. It maintains a mysterious otherness by sitting so far outside an audience’s range of experience.

Few plays tackle the subject openly; the inexorable slide through its beginnings into initiation and onwards onto final devastation is laid out in front of the audience in an astonishingly frank manner with surprisingly little of the expected moral criticism. Ford’s play wrong-foots the spectator at almost every turn leaving the audience fully engaged in the spectacle despite an awareness that the conventions of drama practically dictate the inevitable conclusion.

By and large it is taken as a given that Cheek by Jowl will put in a solid piece of theatre, paying close attention to the text whilst stripping back the stage foliage to let the meaning take centre stage. The use of music and inventive staging will be utilised in a methodical manner that leads an audience through the difficult language and complexities of plot to reach the key themes. This approach is evident whether the play is in French (Andromache), Russian (The Tempest) or English (Troilus and Cressida); it is always interesting and very often successful.

There is a risk that with a 30-year career behind them, what was once edgy and bold becomes, through the changing of the seasons, safe and conservative. This concern is compounded by entering to a stage that is a stark black, white and red; one immediately thinks of the numerous sub-par productions following in Cheek by Jowl’s wake that equate stripped-back staging with textual and emotional depth. However as the scenes roll by, and the play really does clip along at quite a rate – it is cut to 120 minutes with no interval, the concerns slip away. Red may be an obvious colour motif but it takes someone confident in their abilities to steer clear of the most stereotypical associations and draw out a more complex meaning; that Tis Pity rests on blood of a more subtle kind, be it murder, blood-ties or the emergence of womanhood. The taking of Annabella’s virginity by her brother plays out on blood-red sheets, the threat of abortion pulled from the same sheets into the sterility of the stark, white bathroom and a maid moves from ecstasy to agony against pounding bass emanating from a suitably-coloured CD player.

There are, as is to be expected, wonderfully inventive tableau’s with some clear allusions to religious iconography. There appear to be nods to the world of high art and Ruben’s ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ seems to have been a key influence. Ruben’s painting appears to reflect a key theme of Cheek by Jowl’s production, which is the desire to highlight the misogyny within the play. It would be an appropriate allusion, as the Rape of the Sabine Women is the glorification of the Roman triumph over the Sabines – where the women merely acted as the greater prize of territorial expansion. Within Tis Pity there is an ever-present sense that Annabella is just such a prize to be fought over by her suitors.

Unsurprisingly this undercurrent of misogyny is usually sidelined to focus on the incest storyline but through judicious cutting and running it straight gave Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod the opportunity to draw out the appalling treatment meted out to women in the play.

Hippolita, Putana and Annabella are the three women and it is their destiny to suffer so that the dignity of men can be best protected. Whilst Hippolita is played as a blackly comic creation and must share some of the blame for her eventual downfall, she is still made a fool of by Soranzo and then fatally cheated by Vasques in order to protect his master. Putana is cajoled into revealing crucial information about Annabella before being brutally tortured by Vasques, again in order to protect his master. Annabella who is initially threatened with death by Soranzo is then spared only to be killed by her brother – who arrogantly believes that he needn’t fear Soranzo before deciding that sacrificing Annabella to maintain her honour is better than doing the same to himself. It is an interesting observation by Donnellan and Ormerod and this misogynistic idea of female weakness is seen throughout – whether it is in Soranzo sparing Annabella only to avenge his humiliation by wishing to kill her brother, or the fact that female characters can be seduced with a few fancy words in even the most personal of confidences.

It is hard to note to what extent this interpretation has been brought to the fore through prudent editing but in the cutting process problems with the narrative do begin to emerge. The backstory to Hippolita’s relationship with Soranzo had been pulled apart and the whole of that sub-plot struggled for coherence. It was difficult to grasp why she had felt so wronged by him, and as a result there was a lack of sympathy when she was fooled by Vasques. In the later half of the play it was also quite difficult to follow the motivation for Giovanni’s actions leading up to the finale, however this may well be a problem with the original text as revenge tragedies have a tendency to lose their bearings in the final third.

It is worth noting Lydia Wilson, as Annabella, was excellent. It is not an easy role but Wilson captured the dangerous playfulness that could bring men to their knees, as well as hinting at the fragility of a personality that has grown up with the impression of having free choice only to begin to realise that they have been dangerously cocooned from the reality of the outside world. It is interesting that Wilson’s career has now taken in this, following Blasted at the Lyric last year. In both she portrayed a damaged young damaged woman with a sexual power that ensnares men, and a world apart in terms of physicality and character, we may be seeing the making of a new light of contemporary theatre. Not all the performances are so solid, the Friar appeared to be acting in a different play at times whilst Vasques was a little too close to a Pinter-sterotype to convince that he could be such a seducer of women.

You will never be bored by a Cheek by Jowl production and there will always be theatrical elements that will appear completely original. In this they take deep staging to an extreme degree to create beautiful tableau’s in the most limited of space. However ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore does suffer from problems of narrative coherence and a couple of tonally imbalanced characters that may leave some of Cheek By Jowl’s most ardent devotees a little disappointed.

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