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Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews

‘The essence of eroticism is to be found in the inextricable confusion of sexual pleasure and taboo’, wrote French philosopher Georges Bataille, a quote reprinted in the programme notes for Cheek By Jowl’s current production of John Ford’s Caroline tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Accordingly, in emphasising the play’s inherent sexuality, Director Declan Donnellan has thoroughly imbued this adaptation with a disorderly atmosphere of immoral carnal lust. Effective in leaving a memorable impression though this approach is, it borders on predictability at times.

Set in 17th Century Parma, ‘Tis Pity centres on Annabella (Eve Ponsonby) and her brother Giovanni (Orlando James), who share a passion for one another and, despite the religious corruption involved, discover a sexual ecstasy in their incest. Their secretive love affair is thrown into fervent despair by the persistence of Soranzo (Maximilien Seweryn), a noble suitor for Annabella’s hand in marriage. Meanwhile, Soranzo’s spurned lover, the widow Hippolita (Ruth Everett), plots her revenge with the help of Vasques (Will Alexander), Soranzo’s right-hand man. As brother, sister, suitor and widow lose themselves in desire, violence and vengeance, their fortunes tend toward calamity.

The set is a teenage girl’s bedroom: a hastily made bed, empty lipstick on cluttered wardrobes, and dirty underwear strewn across the floor. This is an effective device as it provides a recognisable, relatable context for the play’s events, whilst simultaneously imparting the appropriate impression of being where one shouldn’t be, of somehow entering the forbidden theatre of a teenage girl’s emotion.

The play’s more intimate scenes are watched not only by the audience, but by the inactive cast also; they creep eerily around the edges of the stage, never taking their eyes of the action and effectively creating an air of unspoken judgement, a reflection of the central characters’ paranoia.  One is constantly aware of their presence and, although the stage occasionally appears crowded as a result, attention is never unintentionally distracted.

Ponsonby and James are suitably deranged in their incestuous lust, the latter assuming a nasal, almost whining tone in his desperate attempts to prevent disaster. Everett is thoroughly enjoyable as a maniacally sex-crazed Hippolita, whose slinky movement and unconcealed attempts at seduction are particularly amusing and Seweryn is entertaining as the callous Soranzo.

Alexander as Vasques is the unquestionable highlight, however. As the plot develops, the gradual revelation of Vasques’ dubious character is delightfully drawn out. He varies from endearingly kind to terrifyingly menacing in a moment and one is never sure if his words are genuine or his intentions honest. A scene in which he is seduced by Hippolita is memorably exquisite.

Despite these commendable performances and effective dramatic devices, the play suffers from its predictability. Donnellan’s direction, although undeniably dynamic, is entirely unsurprising: frantic dancing, thumping music and writhing bodies, all bathed in a red glow representative of the siblings’ unquenchable passion for one another. Giovanni and Annabella do not merely desire each other physically, however; their affair is one of love as well as lust, yet this deeper aspect of their relationship is wholly underserved in Donnellan’s somewhat shallow interpretation.

When Samuel Pepys saw a production of ‘Tis Pity at Salisbury Court Playhouse in September 1661, he dismissed it in six short words: ‘a simple play and ill acted’.  In the intervening 353 years, the prevailing commentary on Ford’s tragedy has evolved. Pepys’ condemnation of it as simple sensationalism is no longer accepted, yet Cheek By Jowl’s adaptation, although undeniably engrossing and laudably acted, with a captivating performance from Will Alexander, is still disappointingly one-dimensional.

3/5

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