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'Tis Pity She's A Whore (Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

Michael Longhurst's production of John Ford's classic is "gleefully shocking"

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Fiona Button and Max Bennett
© Bronwen Sharp

The last London production of John Ford's great 1633 tragedy of incest and murder was Declan Donnellan's stressfully, and brilliantly, updated version at the Barbican; in the Globe's indoor venue, we revert to ruffs and candlelight, doublets and daggers, masques and bursts of the Latin mass.

But Michael Longhurst's production is no less gleefully shocking in its frank representation of the sibling sexual congress (much heaving and buttock-slapping), the violence and pools of blood, the poisonings and pious prattling of elders, the doner kebab at the feast, the brandished heart on a skewer, and the callous evisceration of a blinded servant.

In all this, Ford's verse retains a steady, objective rhythm, lit with such famous phrases as Giovanni's exclamation that his sister's lips would tempt a saint, such hands as hers would make an anchorite lascivious; or that of the foolish suitor, Bergetto, stabbed in the street, wondering how he could piss both fore and aft – "I am going the wrong way, sure…"

As Bergetto, the hilarious James Garnon does an immediate about turn as a glittering papal nuncio, as if Mercutio had returned as the Duke of Verona. The volatile moral centre of the play is now relocated in the bald fact of the love of Max Bennett's eager Giovanni and its reciprocated intensity in Fiona Button's headlong Annabella. There is no denying this surge, and when Annabella is married off to Stefano Braschi's "suitable" nobleman Soranzo, the writing's on the wall.

Soranzo himself is the target of a spurned lover's revenge, and RSC associate Noma Dumezweni makes of Hippolita a graceful, deadly, curse-distributing adversary before she, too, is dealt a low blow by the supposedly cooperative Vasquez (Philip Cumbus), Soranzo's servant, and a crucial pivot in the play, something I'd not experienced so effectively before.

And when the action expands alarmingly to include marital abuse, unborn child murder and a climactic finale of blood-letting at a birthday party that hits new highs of depravity, you can't believe your ears. In the glimmering light of the Sam Wanamaker – will these clusters of beeswax candles ever become a restrictive, over-familiar nuisance? – you strain your eyes to see such things you'd rather not.

The scene is nominally Parma – not too much ham acting - but you read about these sorts of events all over the world; it takes dramatic genius to make of the dark undercurrents and complots something of such perverse theatrical beauty. And this John Ford does. This is a fine production of a hard core Jacobean masterpiece, well designed by Alex Lowde, with music by Simon Slater, and a pair of nice old fussing tosspots on the side from Edward Peel and Sam Cox.

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