‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

A newly formed company, although made up of seasoned performers on the Oxford theatre scene, StopGap Theatre Company deliver a modern-dress and simple production of John Ford’s tragedy of incest and murder. Finding a play which, even in the modern world, is extremely uncomfortable for the audience in terms of theme, is not easy, but Ford’s play tackles an issue which is still very much taboo. Ford treats the relationship between Giovanni and his sister Annabella with the same reverence as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, displaying a depth of love which, in any other circumstances would be regarded as admirable, which increases the audience’s unease.

The production does highlight the intimacy and claustrophobia of John Ford’s inverted Romeo and Juliet. The story of Giovanni’s passionate and destructive love for his sister is played out on a simple set dominated by an altar and lit by candles, emphasising the impending threat of damnation which is highlighted throughout the play. Although perhaps the use of pre-recorded sound effects of tortured souls in hell overstresses the point, it is nonetheless a chilling reminder of the eternal consequences of the lusts of the characters. This sense of inevitability is further emphasised by the use of live music, as played by Tim Smith’s Vasques, as a kind of manipulative Master of Ceremonies.

As Giovanni, Ben Baxter gives a confident performance, capturing with particular effectiveness the jealousy and rage that so drives the character. The interplay between him and Ailsa Joy’s vulnerable Annabella is well-played, although their passionate relationship lacked the tenderness needed to ensure that the audience fully engaged and sympathised with their plight.

A role where a range of extreme emotions are necessary can easily fall into the trap of being overplayed and it is a credit to both Michael Fell and his directors that his Soranzo was both subtle and convincing. His Hippolita (Sara Danesh-Pour), however, lacked the authority and sensuality necessary to produce a relationship of sufficient depth and passion between them to make her actions credible.

Nonetheless this does not prevent the play, although initially unfocused, from developing into a pacy and dramatic production. Despite the occasional moments of self-conscious “acting” from some members of the cast, StopGap have created a production which is both gripping and shocking. Rogers’ and Baxter’s direction doesn’t shy away from the horror and bluntness of Ford’s treatment of a theme which even today’s desensitised audiences find unsettling.