‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore – Cheek 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.