After the shocked reaction in some quarters to the poster for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the billboard outside the Playhouse exhorts us to judge the play, not the poster. Press Night found the theatre well filled, with a welcome number of young people, generally responding positively to a production that is relatively chaste and becomes violent only when it’s unavoidable. The warning sign promises “moderate violence” – if the ending is only moderate, then things must have got pretty bad in Leeds in recent years!
Jonathon Munby’s production updates John Ford’s play over 300 years to the 1950s and it works well, not only in such jolly little details as Bergetto’s Vespa, but in more structural ways, notably in establishing the upper-middle-class milieu more clearly. However, the clarity also serves to show what a strange play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is. Corruption is all around Florio’s family and friends, especially among the suitors for his daughter Annabella – murder requires minimal motivation – and in the middle of all this she embarks on an intense sexual relationship with her brother Giovanni. This is condemned as immoral in the first scene by the kindly Friar Bonaventura (Robert Bowman), but Ford is non-judgemental and the lovers appear innocent compared with the corruption around them.
Equally strange is the sense that John Ford is somehow writing a commentary on the Shakespearean canon of plays. Romeo and Juliet was cited in pre-publicity and the resemblance is striking, including equivalents to the Nurse and Friar Lawrence, but echoes of other plays, notably Hamlet, resound through the play.
The production is highly confident, sure of its internal consistency of style, notably cinematic, with images and settings flown or trucked in (Mike Britton’s designs), music that uses popular songs combined with film noir underscoring (Dominic Haslam) and dramatic lighting that invites you into the shadows (Oliver Fenwick).
Casting is generous, with only one case of doubling, Michael Matus shuffling off the foolish character of Bergetto (rather obvious funnies from Ford, well-judged over-playing from Matus) to become the icily assertive Cardinal nuncio. James Hayes is perfect as Florio, urbane, self-possessed, a friend to all so long as nobody investigates what’s really happening. He is surrounded by strong performances: Rachel Lumberg’s Putana (a comic good-hearted disaster area equivalent to Juliet’s Nurse), Sebastian Reid’s loose-forward of a Soranzo, all honourable words and dubious intentions, Sally Dexter’s neurotically vengeful Hippolita, William Ilkley’s venal doctor, and, best of all, Gerard Monaco as Vasquez, Soranzo’s servant, who somehow turns loyalty into the Eighth Deadly Sin.
And in the two central roles Sara Vickers and Damien Molony, barely out of drama school, give the siblings all the devotion and apparent innocence you could wish. Vickers takes time to bring out Annabella’s character and Molony doesn’t escape monotony of gesture, but the intelligence and intensity of their performances suggest highly successful careers for both.