Jonathan Munby On ...'Tis Pity She's A WhoreDate: 30 April 2011In the early 1630s, when John Ford wrote ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, he must have expected the title (ironically used?), no less than the theme of incest, still pretty much taboo even now, would shock – or, at least, provoke – his audience. The production at West Yorkshire Playhouse has already stirred up indignation well before the opening on May 7th. At the absurd end this takes the form of criticising the use of the full title on the grounds that it’s generally referred to as ‘Tis Pity – well, yes, but only in the way we refer to Much Ado or Godot, in conversational shorthand, not formal billing. Rightly taken much more seriously by the Playhouse are genuine concerns of some Roman Catholics at posters that place the title next to the image of the Pieta, the Virgin Mary with the body of Jesus.
Director Jonathan Munby regrets the offence, whilst mounting a robust defence of the poster, but soon moves on to talk about the humanity of the play and its remarkably sympathetic and non-judgemental portrayal of the brother and sister, Giovanni and Annabella, whose scandalous relationship is central to the plot:
“A small group of Catholics took exception to our placing the Pieta next to the title of the play. It’s a shame because it overshadows the subject matter of the play. I think it’s a misreading of the image as well. None of the choices we made were arbitrary. It has great symbolic value in terms of what’s important in the play and the production. It’s an image of pity, of a mother cradling her dead child – what could be more relevant to the play?
“One of the brilliant things about the play is that Ford doesn’t judge the lovers. He presents their love as the purest and most beautiful thing in the play. It’s about the loss of innocence – they are surrounded by corruption. It does something wonderful to an audience: it means we have to engage with the characters and issues and we actually have a difficult relationship with them. On one level Giovanni and Annabella need each other so much and find something wonderful. But it upsets us at the same time because we bring our own views about incest. With Annabella and Giovanni Ford takes the Romeo and Juliet story and turns it on its head to have a debate about the issues.”
Appropriately enough the other element in the controversial poster is a sweet image of two children, by implication the innocent Giovanni and Annabella who becomes the object of assorted male fantasies and the unjustly labelled “whore” of the title.
Those in search of controversy will always find it in the updating of classic plays and, though Jonathan has much of interest to say about the theatres and methods of staging in Jacobean and Caroline England, he is, in fact, setting ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in the 1960s. He is not short of reasons for the time-shift:
“I ask myself the questions, ‘What is it to perform this play in the present tense? What is it to perform ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore to a contemporary Leeds audience? What does it take to make it immediate, relevant and powerful?’ I think the questions raised by this play are as relevant as they were 400 years ago and so it benefits from a more contemporary context. So I thought about what period would release the play without diminishing it. And we settled on Italy in the 60s. There were a lot of things going on in that decade that made sense to us. At the core of the play is a tension between generations, children of the revolution (their own revolution) standing up and saying, ‘This is what we are, this is what we stand for.’ That makes sense in a 1960s setting. Then there’s a violence in the world of which Ford writes and the 1960s was a violent period in Italy. That decade ended with a student insurrection in 1968, with violence breaking out onto the street, and earlier in the decade you had workers standing up for their rights and bloody clashes on the picket lines. This is a violent play: the second scene is a street fight and the play ends with the most extraordinary scenes of violence. Also this is a God-centred world, a Catholic world, and the Catholic Church was going through an interesting phase in the 1960s, with John XXIII reaching out more to the world. In the play we have two very strong religious figures. The Cardinal is orthodox, conservative, corrupt, hypocritical and unrelenting in his views (he’s the character who speaks the words of the title) and in opposition the Friar is much more open to helping the young people – and it struck us that this time of change in the Church gave us an interesting starting point in terms of the polarity of those two Church figures.”
A fine academic justification, but Munby is a man of the theatre who is quite happy to take advantage of a decade with great style and great music, with an iconography we all derive from Fellini films. Also he is determined that the audience will have no excuse for saying, “This happened 400 years ago, so I can disassociate myself from it because it’s nothing to do with me.” “Actually,” he claims, “it’s everything to do with us.”
Jonathan Munby has taken the bold decision to cast very young actors in the leading roles – his Giovanni, in fact, has been whisked out of drama school – to join such excellent experienced actors as Sally Dexter and Michael Matus. His debut production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse has every possibility of being as moving as it is shocking.
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