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’Tis Pity She’s A Whore

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Cheek by Jowl return to the Silk Street Theatre they graced last year with their Russian ensemble production of The Tempest. Their English ensemble has a very hard act to follow, but this ’Tis Pity is one of the finest and most bitterly outrageous Jacobean productions you could hope to see.

John Ford’s 1633 play is a love story with a twist: an incestuous sexual pact between Annabella (Lydia Wilson) and her brother Giovanni (Jack Gordon) that defies her father’s plans for her to marry Soranzo (Jack Hawkins) and has a mock wedding ceremony at its heart that is here played out as a poisoned samba, with a company conga to boot and an outbreak of violence almost beyond description.

Sounds familiar? Yes, there is much in common with the current Young Vic production of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, a play that pre-dates ’Tis Pity by ten years. And there’s the same shocking insouciance in Declan Donnellan’s production, with movement by Jane Gibson, which uses his ensemble as a sounding board for the protagonists, strutting like cocks, intoning ecclesiastical anthems or breaking out in rhythmic unison at a banquet, or the arrival of the papal nuncio.

Ford’s play is much darker and less lyrical even than The Changeling, and Donnellan takes it further by cutting some of the knockabout comedy as well as the sententious concluding dialogue. Giovanni cradles his sister’s heart while her ghost materialises from the upstage bathroom where the other witnesses are retching and reeling at the horrors splattered over the white tiling.

Donnellan and his regular designer Nick Ormerod create the Parma follies exclusively within Annabella’s bedroom, which is blood red in its sheets, mattress and walls plastered with ironically lurid posters for Gone With the Wind and Breakfast at Tiffany’s: in this womb-like retreat, Annabella can be lured to sexual gratification of the most explicit kind, and sanctified as a Madonna of the misfits.

The bravery, and headlong intensity of the performances, is remarkable. Lydia Wilson even manages to retain a natural dignity and girlishness in the throes of her brother lust, while Jack Gordon makes of his unnatural predicament something strangely natural and comprehensible. Ford imbues these characters with an innate grace, and a youthful appeal, which makes the tragedy all the more affecting.

The dozen actors include Suzanne Burden as the hysterical Hippolita, David Collings as a flurried Florio, the children’s father, Nyasha Hatendi as the fraught Friar and Lizzie Hopley as a scheming companion, Putana, who spills the beans while treated to a threesome with a male stripper and pays a most horrible and grisly price. The play is sordid, modern, upsetting and totally compelling.


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