’Tis Pity She’s a Whore @ Oxford Playhouse (on tour), directed by Declan Donnellan for Cheek by Jowl, 2012His Contemporaries

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’Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford Directed by Declan Donnellan for Cheek by Jowl at Oxford Playhouse (on tour), 7 February 2012

Reviewed by Peter Malin

 

References to the play are to John Ford, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, ed. by Martin Wiggins, New Mermaids, 2nd edn (London: A. & C. Black, 2003)

 

In just under two hours, without interval, Declan Donnellan and his designer, Nick Ormerod, presented a loud, gaudy, frantic, nightmarish interpretation of Ford’s masterpiece, set entirely in Annabella’s bedroom. Replete with pounding rock music and sung lines, it was haunted by an ever-present ensemble, prowling the stage, observing, applauding, supplying a vocalised soundscape and moulding itself into a series of athletic tableaux. The presiding deities of this production were not the terrifying Catholic God of Ford’s Parma, nor the “Fate” insisted on by Giovanni, but those reliable old theatrical visionaries, Artaud and Grotowski. Four characters – the usual suspects  – were completely eliminated by the director’s prioritising of pace and impetus. There were no Bergetto, Poggio, Richardetto or Philotis, resulting in collateral damage to the role of Donado; yet there was also an odd addition to the dramatis personae, a character named as Gratiano in the programme, whom I never managed to identify. Though the production was undoubtedly a powerful dramatic experience, these drastic alterations rendered it a mere shadow of Ford’s play.

One effect of the cuts was to diminish the play’s deliberate, distorted echoes of Romeo and Juliet. Bergetto’s comedy, like that of Mercutio in Shakespeare’s play, enlivens the early action and culminates in a similarly comic and touching death scene, but with Mercutio’s razor-sharp wit and linguistic flair parodied by Bergetto’s dumb stupidity. In some ways, the loyal Poggio’s heart-breaking line, “O my master, my master, my master!” (3.7.37) provides a more powerful and moving tragic frisson than the play’s gory climax. The excision of this whole sub-plot, with its bitter aftermath in the Cardinal’s failure to dispense justice – twisting Prince Escalus’s role at the equivalent point in Romeo and Juliet – represented an enormous loss to the play’s dramatic and thematic structure. Peter Moreton’s Cardinal in fact had a raw deal all round. When he was finally allowed to appear, he was required to sing all his lines as part of the ensemble’s posturing and partying at Soranzo’s birthday feast and, since the text was cut short eighty lines or so before Ford’s conclusion, with neither Soranzo nor Giovanni meeting their expected ends, he was deprived of his controlling role in managing the finale. Thus, we were given neither his confiscation of the Florio family’s wealth “to the Pope’s proper use” (5.6.150), nor his cynical moral judgment on Annabella, coining the play’s by-now ironic title in his final rhyming couplet. Luckily for Moreton, he also got to play the Doctor, one of the few remnants of Richardetto’s role; another was the wonderful line, “So, if this hit, I’ll laugh and hug revenge” (3.5.22), transferred here to Hippolita.

But enough of what wasn’t in the show. The production’s permanent setting seemed at first glance to offer an accurate representation of a stereotypical teenage girl’s bedroom, with its casual disarray, cluttered bric-a-brac, unidentifiable junk shoved under the bed, clothes strewn around and walls covered with posters. Among these I could make out only the contrasting romantic fantasies of True Blood and Gone with the Wind. There were also, I think, a demure portrait of the Virgin, and possibly a Dali print; I was unable to identify the others from my front circle seat. These four alone, however, offered an apt indication of the varied cross-cultural currents in both play and production.

The centre-piece of the room was a huge double bed, with red base, red mattress, red sheets, red duvet; indeed, the entire room was furnished in shades of red and lit by red lamps. One effect of the constant parade of dark-suited men and dubious women swirling around this red room was to emphasise its status as brothel, controlled by men for the pleasure of men. Two doors, symmetrically placed in the rear wall of the bedroom, were used to striking dramatic effect. The stage-right door led to the rest of the house and the outside world, admitting visitors including a comic array of extra-textual suitors for Annabella’s hand. More interestingly, the stage-left door opened into her brightly-lit, stark, white, en suite bathroom, used at key points in the play for varieties of bodily cleansing, relief and mutilation. Grimaldi stripped off in there to shower after his fight with Vasques; Giovanni, also naked, went in for post-coital urination; the Doctor washed his hands there after examining Annabella; Hippolita retreated there to vomit after swallowing the poison; Putana was dragged there for further punishment after apparently having her tongue bitten out; and Giovanni carried Annabella’s body into this surgically pristine environment to perform on her his grotesque, post-mortem dissection. When he emerged with her heart clutched in his hands in the final scene, the bathroom walls were spattered with blood. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the production, one could appreciate a powerful theatrical imagination at work, shaping our response to Ford’s text rather than manipulating that text to its own purposes. Unfortunately, all of this was invisible, I am told, from the front stalls, being obscured by the bed; yet another example of a touring production not properly fitted to its host venues.

At the start, Annabella entered her room some time before the house lights dimmed. Kneeling on her bed in a red hoodie, she wrapped herself in the duvet, put on her headphones and booted up her laptop. To begin the play, she activated loud rock music and began to dance on the bed as the stage was filled by the rest of the ensemble performing a writhing, pulsating dance incorporating exaggerated masturbatory gestures. One could interpret this as a cynical ploy to get young audiences on side, as it patently did at the performance I saw; but the play already has an explosive opening in the Friar’s angry imperative, “Dispute no more in this” (1.1.1), plunging us into mid-argument and demanding that we listen. In the event, this line and the speech it begins could never live up to the loud music and frantic dancing that preceded it. Its impact was further diminished by its being spoken in the presence of the whole ensemble, so that it was not immediately clear to whom it was being addressed. Nyasha Hatendi’s performance as the Friar didn’t help. His delivery was stilted, his words difficult to hear, while his body movements were exaggerated and melodramatic, suggesting – deliberately, I assume – an animated theological abstraction from a medieval morality play.

None of the other characters was played like this, though Jack Gordon’s swarthy Giovanni delivered his lines with an odd, hesitant phrasing, disconcertingly putting pauses after every few words in completely the wrong places. Jack Hawkins as Soranzo and Lydia Wilson as Annabella sometimes demonstrated the same vocal quirk, with the result that I found myself attending neither to the meaning of the words, nor to their emotional resonance, but to how they were phrased. Gordon’s Giovanni, in particular, was a strangely lifeless character, whose passion seemed manufactured and who never generated either pity or terror. True, the character as drawn by Ford is unsympathetic and unvaried, remaining arrogant, possessive and self-obsessed throughout the play; but surely he should not merely fade into the background as he did here.

Annabella is a character of much greater variety – paradoxically so, since she is largely reactive rather than proactive. However, the contrasting pressures on her force her to demonstrate a diverse range of responses, granting her a greater emotional range and making her seem touchingly human and contradictory. Lydia Wilson provided a constantly interesting dramatic focus, veering from teenage petulance and naivety to angry, manipulative sarcasm, via emotional fragility, courage, submissiveness, self-pity and a steely determination. Of all the actors, Wilson came nearest to conveying what her character calls a “wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy” (5.1.8).

Jack Hawkins’s Soranzo was overshadowed by the other two key characters in his part of the narrative. Laurence Spellman’s Vasques, not a Spaniard but a genially sinister Cockney factotum, took control of all his scenes with a low-key charisma, whether insouciantly mixing the poisoned drink while the masque took place in an adjoining room, or casting casual instructions for the mutilation of Putana to the burly stripper who here replaced the banditti of the original text. Suzanne Burden’s ripe Hippolita relished the melodrama of her role, whether elegant in the black cocktail dress and pearls of a spurned society hostess; tomboyish in schoolgirl blazer, wielding a hockey stick in Soranzo’s face; or faux-innocent in white satin for the surprise wedding masque, crooning her ironic love-song into a suggestively handled microphone. In Burden’s experienced hands, this role was essentially, and unexpectedly, comic, though her curse-filled dying speech did register some of the chilling impact it should surely have. In their scenes together, Spellman and Burden conjured genuine dramatic tension which, for once, arose principally from their powerful handling of Ford’s text.

Another accomplished performance by an experienced practitioner was David Collings’s interpretation of Florio, and it often came as a genuine relief to listen to his grave, measured tones. In some ways, Collings made Florio the most sympathetic character, as befits a rare father in the period’s drama who, unlike Shakespeare’s angrily spluttering Capulet, can declare of his daughter that he “will not force [her] ’gainst her will”, concluding, “I would not have her marry wealth, but love” (1.3.3-11). His sudden and unexpected death was appropriately, but unusually in my experience, greeted with shock rather than laughter from the audience – a credit to the actor’s restrained humanity.

The most interesting performance, quite unexpectedly, was that of Lizzie Hopley as Putana, that shockingly if amusingly coarse extension of Juliet’s Nurse. Dressed as a maid out of a 1940s farce, Hopley’s Putana was younger than the usual “old damnable hag” (4.3.224), but was clearly experienced in sexual matters – though not, perhaps, at first hand. She moved in skittish little skips, humming snatches of tunes, and clearly derived a vicarious thrill from her mistress’s sexual adventures, gleefully spraying the room – and the bed – with air freshener after Annabella and Giovanni’s first sexual encounter. Even her cries of “we are all undone, quite undone, utterly undone” (3.3.1) were expressive of excited delight, and she clearly lived in a fantasy world of sexual promise; hence Vasques’s astuteness in luring her to her fatal disclosures through a tempting encounter with a male stripper – plus a helpful ecstasy pill. Her cruel fate, after the enjoyment she had provided for the audience, was even more shocking than usual.

It has often been noted how brilliantly Ford utilises the theatre’s upper level in this play. Sadly, there was no upper level in Ormerod’s set, though the bed was sometimes used as such, with characters standing on it while others sat or lay on the floor below. Generally, though, Donnellan substituted for Ford’s masterful stagecraft an alternative set of dramaturgical gambits, some of which fatally undermined the clarity of the story-telling. In particular, the fluid movement between sequences often resulted in our watching a new scene begin as the previous one was still being played out, with the onstage ensemble gradually shifting the focus of its attention. This could be confusing, and was especially so in the “cross-fade” from 4.1 to 4.3, moving from the bloodily disrupted “bride-banquet” (4.1.108) to the wedding-night violence of Annabella being “dragged in” by her husband.[1] The confusion was exacerbated by the quiet relish with which Jack Hawkins delivered Soranzo’s violent outburst beginning, “Come, strumpet, famous whore!” (4.3.1), as if he were merely playing with a fantasy of his wife’s looseness to enhance his pleasure in their subsequent sexual union, rather than unleashing a furious, post-coital response to his discovery of her pregnancy. This was odd, and must have been unreadable to those unfamiliar with the play.

Visually, the production worked as a series of kaleidoscopically shifting tableaux, often held for a moment before melting into something different. One of the most striking of these was of Annabella, standing on her bed with her head artificially haloed like a proud Madonna, worshipped by a mounting wave of half-naked male bodies. Like much of the production’s exploitation of naked flesh, this was charged with homoerotic overtones, presenting Annabella with knowing irony as if she were a gay icon. Interestingly, there was a noticeable inconsistency in the production’s attitude to nakedness. We were allowed to see Grimaldi and Giovanni completely unclothed, if only from behind; yet while the latter had clearly been “naked abed” with Annabella, she remained resolutely attached to her undergarments. This was odd, inconsistent and inexplicable, revealing an uncharacteristic coyness in an otherwise erotically charged version of the play.

Ford’s concluding scene is immensely challenging to stage, and Giovanni’s entrance with Annabella’s heart on his dagger is often greeted with laughter. This may well have been part of Ford’s intention, yet it feels somehow wrong to modern practitioners and audiences. To Donnellan’s credit, he ensured that this notorious moment was grippingly tense rather than unintentionally comic, partly by removing the melodrama of the skewering dagger. Soranzo and his guests were singing their lines while vigorously performing a ludicrous dance when Giovanni appeared at the bathroom door, half hidden among the gyrating bodies. He emerged slowly through the crowd, so that we only gradually registered the blood in which he was stickily smeared and the object he was clutching possessively to his chest, not fully realising what it was until he told the now-stilled, appalled onlookers. The radically curtailed ending enabled Donnellan to leave us with a final tableau of a family destroyed by some overwhelming, irresistible force: Giovanni sitting on the bed, cradling the bloody heart; Florio stretched across the bed behind him; and Annabella’s “ghost” reaching across their father’s body towards her brother/lover. It was effective – but it short-changed the audience by depriving them of the quite different emphasis of Ford’s carefully-crafted conclusion.

This was a gripping, visceral, imaginative, disturbing piece of theatre, but I cannot wait to see a production of a classic revenge tragedy that respects the playwright’s work and even, heaven forbid, sets the play in its original period. Now that would be radical.

 

1 The intervening scene, a short dialogue between Richardetto and Philotis, was of course excised.

Peter Malin

Author: Peter Malin

Peter Malin is an independent scholar with a particular interest in the performance of early modern drama. He has contributed articles and reviews to ROMARD, Early Theatre, Cahiers Elisabethains and Shakespeare, and is the author of A Level Student Text Guides on The Winter's Tale, The Alchemist, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. He is a retired teacher, and is actively involved in amateur theatre as both actor and director, including many productions for Oxford Theatre Guild and the Shakespeare Institute.
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