Theatre review: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore

by todadwithlove

Dear Dad

The boy is talented, passionate and beautiful; the girl is sensitive, ethereal and pure. The boy is besotted with the girl; the girl secretly loves the boy. Trouble is, he is her brother and she, his sister.

John Ford’s provocative 1633 play was doomed for tragedy — on stage and in life. The combustion of forbidden desires set off waves of treachery and ended in carnage. But it was Ford’s sympathetic treatment of the protagonists that drew censures (and censors) during his time.

Marion Potts’ adaptation of this delicious work is original, unexpected and thoughtful. It is a montage on stage — of language, of music and of time. Ford’s authentic Elizabethan English juxtaposes with contemporary streetspeak. Soaring arias interweave with techno-pump. And, burbling beneath the 21st century zeitgeist is an undercurrent of the 17th century spirit.

Anna Cordingley’s space is busy with three layers. The lowest tier is rugged with graffiti-embellished metal containers that create twin tunnels. Jethro Woodward, the sound designer who mixes the techno music, is conspicuously part of this set. The second tier is meretricious with a wide but shallow dining-room. It is decked out in ornate furniture against an ersatz Tiepolo-style canvas backdrop. Above this, the third tier is celestial. There is a harpsichord and a Julia County whose mezzo-soprano voice is as haunting as her period dress is incongruous and billowing.

Potts’ production opens with a modern-day stud, B. (Chris Ryan), on the lowest stage. After a parody on sexual pleasures, he launches into a soliloquy to reveal a sexist and hot-blooded male who is obsessed with women —  for their bodies.

Then, in the middle tier, Ford’s characters are incarnated in 21st century dress and 17th century language. Benedict Samuel’s Giovanni is stunningly paired with Elizabeth Nabben’s Annabella. He has the eloquence and vigour to convey his implacable feelings while she oscillates between verse and song — first in coy restraint, then in moving catharsis. Laura Lattuada’s Putana is shrill as Annabella’s tutoress who insidiously goads her charge on while Richard Piper is the putative patriarch, Florio — without much bite. John Adam’s Soranzo is convincing as the unconscionable cad who callously turns his back on his widow-lover Hippolita to win Annabella’s hand. This, he does when Annabella becomes pregnant — with Giovanni’s child. Alison Whyte gives a striking performance as the vengeful Hippolita who plots with Vasques to poison Soranzo on his wedding. Anthony Brandon Wong’s Vasque epitomises malevolence, although his voice is too insipid to impress.

By alternating between Ford’s scaled-down play and B.’s incidental insight into the unflattering present-day psyche, Potts illuminates the uncanny similarities between yesterday’s duplicity and today’s machiavellianism, between men’s oppression of women then and their implicit contempt for them now. She questions our unabashed sanctimony and holds a mirror to our inherent hypocrisy.

Through deft choreography, she suggests a carry over of past actions/behaviour into the present, for instance, when B. drags out what is presumably a body in a bag after Vasque drags in Putana’s corpse. She blurs the line between fantasy and fact when B. begins to infiltrate the world of Ford’s play and watch the theatrical tragedy unfold through masked but judgmental eyes. His plundering of the dead makes for a rich metaphorical drama. But it is his eventual tearing down of the canvas backdrop that represents the social destruction wrought by external forces.

The highlight of this production is the stirring duets delivered by Nabben and County, that are brilliantly accompanied by Andree Greenwell’s original music. They offer a welcome reprieve from the characters’ mangled lines and Potts’ ambitious macro-statements. Paul Jackson’s lighting is effective in casting the present in grinding harshness and the imagined world in softer shades.

Finally, Potts’ interpretation of ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore is as polemical as Ford’s play itself: the victim is the perpetrator while the villain is righteous through the prism of societal mores.

Advertisements