Reviews West End & Central Published 31 October 2014

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse ⋄ 23rd October - 7th December 2014

Waiting for the axe to fall.

Devawn Wilkinson

Enter Giovanni with a heart upon his dagger – so proclaims John Ford’s infamously horrific stage direction in the last bloody moments of ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Yet, when Michael Longhurst’s production begins, the indoor candlelight is golden and tranquil, warming rather than haunted. We open on Giovanni (Max Bennett), with Bieber haircut and undergrad enthusiasm, debating lust and theology with his mentor, a scene that more resembles the harmless love conundrums of light comedy than any dalliance with death. All the more aweing then, that when that moment finally arrives, Longhurst has so gotten to the very (butchered) heart of this play that any ridiculousness becomes un-laughable and it makes all the sickening, saddening non-sense that Ford surely intended.

Handily, Ford’s play does without the usual tangle of plot threads. The cast navigate swiftly and assuredly through the verse, trusting us to follow. Impudent comedy runs rampant, both with and against the text, buoying it, and us, up rather than overburdening with oncoming tragedy. Whilst Giovanni does standard Romeo moping, various suitors sniff around, courting favour with the father of luminescent Anabella (Fiona Button) as she, perpetually bored, watches from above. Bergetto (James Garnon) and his overly-faithful servant (Dean Nolan) make a beautifully bumbling double act, throwing themselves around the space with refreshing irreverence provoking actual laughter than those knowing academic chuckles. The inclusive clarity of the whole thing crystallises to a point of pure viewing pleasure, before Longhurst expertly smashes it all up in a flurry of blood and bodily horror.

With “love me or kill me” as the play’s echoing refrainthrills quickly turn queasy, then deathly. A chamber scene opens audaciously with the final throes of incestuous sex. Afterwards, Giovanni and Annabella hold each other, appalled and amazed – realising, having passed the point of no return, that they just don’t care. It’s almost adorable and entirely uneasy, especially when Giovanni places his hand tenderly, half-unconsciously around his sister’s throat. It’s voyeuristic, of course, in that intimate space, but more than that, it’s gently incriminating. Longhurst foregrounds not the wrongness but the bittersweet naivety of the pair’s love, until it’s up to us to tense and remember, to wait for the axe to fall.

Still, it’s not the incest shocker which gives the play its bladed edge, but something more insidious. The warm candle light, much like the easy camaraderie onstage, reflects a cloying cosiness – though often pitted against each other, the men are really all on the same side, upholding ‘virtue’ and honour at all cost. Philip Cumbus, compelling as the sardonic servant Valquez, metes out his skewed version of justice with amoral relish. Even the Friar, urging Anabella to repent, inflicts psychological bullying of such escalating violence that it has the brutality of a rape scene. Without fail, women are mistreated as disobedient property, more often than not being dragged on, off or around the stage by their hair. The zenith of such casual cruelty is, of course, Annabella’s eye-wateringly brutal murder, presented not as divine punishment but a more personal disgust – her brother’s desire/horror has always been in thrall to her sensuality, a vitality he can’t withstand and so destroys.

Thankfully, arrogance doesn’t go entirely unpunished. As the patriarchs take their seats at the climactic bloodbath birthday party, they adorn conical pointed party hats in a sardonic visual nod to the dickheads that they all really are. Enter Giovanni, rubbing blood into his skin like some holy unguent. Bennett, previously commendable as the puppyish brother/lover, transcends himself in a fit of truly frightening false righteousness shot through with genuine panic. All semblance of order devolves into a glorious, hideous mess, as characters stumble over butchered corpses and exhausted ideals of virtue and honour finally bleed out.

Most gratifying of all is how the production refuses to merely bemoan its society’s misogyny. In every female character, there’s this discernible triumph of language over the crude violence of masculine action. The wronged Hippolita (Noma Dumezweni) converts simmering bitterness into a supreme, scene-stealing swagger, torn between spitting in her betrayer’s face and kissing it. She does neither, riding it all out through her towering speeches, making the verse sing and even the men (briefly) waiver. Fiona Button as Anabella is magnetically watchable, a point of light undimmed by the fools around her, powered extraordinarily by passion. When her duped husband thrusts a knife in her face and asks her if she’s afraid, her taut reply – “of what?” isn’t played as an emasculating taunt but rather the uttering of a stark, stoical honesty. Wings clipped, she stares past him and right through the interminable morality lecture. For Ford’s time, Annabella is already a progressive heroine, but Button further elevates her to a state of fallen, unrepentant grace.

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Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer and performance poet. As a reviewer, she also writes for A Younger Theatre and formed part of their Edinburgh Young Critics team in 2012 and 2013. She performs her poetry at various events around London, and her work also is included in Things That Have Happened, an anthology of short stories from new young writers, published by Treehouse Press.

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore Show Info


Directed by Michael Longhurst

Written by John Ford

Cast includes Max Bennett, Fiona Button, James Garnon, Noma Dumezweni, Philip Cumbus

Link http://shakespearesglobe.com/

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