Reviews Dublin Published 7 December 2011

The Making of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Project Arts Centre ⋄ 1st - 17th December 2011

Film and the Jacobean playhouse.

Jane Grogan

A ‘gallimaufrey’ is one of the terms used to describe disorder in John Ford’s provocative love-tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. It’s not a bad term (in any sense) to describe Selina Cartmell’s production of a play based on Ford’s, a mixture of media (drama, film, the spoken word, dance, music, song) that generates its own kind of unity to become a curious hybrid of drama and film.

It’s certainly inspired by the formal innovations and intertextual habits of the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses, but isn’t an integrated or cogent response to them. Although its theatrical conventions are informed by a filmic sense of space – or rather, the sense of space that operates in a film studio – it doesn’t quite manage to confront the nature of film itself either. Ambitious, interesting, shocking, occasionally witty, this is an interesting production, that grows in worth for the way in which it produces an effect not much experienced since the early days of revenge tragedy (and which looks to have been the starting point for the whole, slightly overwrought “concept”).

A play about a modern filming of Ford’s incest-drama, this time set in the 1930s, one which uses the words of Ford’s play to embed and enact a concurrent narrative of the director (who plays Giovanni) falling in love with his leading lady (Annabella), there’s plenty going on onstage, and plenty of figuring out for the audience to do at all times. Besides challenging its actors and audiences to make sense of what narrative is dominant when, The Making of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore also tries to foreground the strange magic of artistic production, the director’s slippery footing within the words and vision of another artist before him or her. And in some of the most effective (although transitional) scenes, it presents the complicated choreography and collaboration at the heart of any artistic performance, whether drama or film. (The balletic moments are slightly irksome, however.) Cartmell is interested, too, in showing the radical and innovative nature of dramatists overshadowed by their near-contemporary, Shakespeare, and in this she is partially successful: for all the complexity, Ford’s language is powerfully simple and direct, his subject as shocking as any Shakespearean tragedy. She makes her case for Ford cheekily from the Shakespearean side too: where the Romeo and Juliet parallels are emphasized, they are filtered primarily through the explosive images of Baz Luhrmann’s 1997 film rather than Shakespeare’s words (Putana as the Nurse, guns brandished as daggers by the star-crossed lovers, and so on).

This is not a production lacking in ambition or inventiveness. But there’s a fundamental misconception at the heart of Cartmell’s vision, which locates its authority for the formal innovations both in Ford’s creative re-working of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and in the example of Kenneth Branagh’s direction of himself in key Shakespeare plays. Cartmell has mentioned Branagh’s Hamlet in interviews, but it’s Branagh’s Henry V that gives her her opening scenes, and the conceit for the play. While both are worthy and interesting models, a misconception remains between form (genre) and medium, which ultimately fragments the play rather than unifying it. Ford’s response to Shakespeare remained in the dramatic medium, though it borrowed from other genres (notably revenge tragedy) to transform the genre of Shakespeare’s love-tragedy into something far more disturbing still. Branagh’s films, for all their faults, know that they are films, and parade film triumphantly against (and even above) drama. Cartmell’s production tries to have it both ways: to spin out Ford’s generic (formal) innovation as adaptation in a new medium, and to tie cinematic innovation to Ford’s adaptation of dramatic genres.

This fragmentation means, for example, that the reliably compelling Cathy Belton’s Hippolita’s scenes get stranded out of context or register, notably alone on the balcony. Although there is a soundtrack throughout, it constantly interrupts and juxtaposes different songs, styles and musical themes with little more than temporary significance. Again, in always keeping its ‘old men’ characters on screen and at a distance, we lose a sense of Ford’s sympathy for Annabella, who never has any choices but is passed around like a valuable toy between the men around her, not just her self-serving would-be lovers, but her calculating father and the hypocritical priest. More positively, however, the playing of Vasquez by each of Annabella’s suitors in turn cleverly exposes the primarily functional rather than thematic role of these villainous characters in Jacobean drama (Middleton’s DeFlores in The Changeling is probably the best example of this).

This is not an easy play to watch, in many ways, but it is a very rewarding one. Brush up your Ford!

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Jane Grogan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

The Making of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore Show Info


Directed by Selina Cartmell

Cast includes Louis Lovett, Kate Stanley-Brennan, Cathy Belton, Lorcan Cranitch, Phelim Drew, Simon Delaney, Paul Reid

Link http://www.projectartscentre.ie/

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