Impossible passion

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 23.11.2012

Over the years, Cheek by Jowl, the company founded in 1981 by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, have become regular visitors to the Grand Théâtre. Last week they brought us John Ford’s most famous work. Published in 1633, ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore has a history of its own. The play was quite popular when it was first staged in London. It was then briefly revived in the early 1660s, yet was soon deemed unsuitable for the public stage because of the sibling incest at its heart. As a result, it remained unperformed for roughly 250 years. Ever since the 1960s, however, Ford’s play has been seen as a classic of early modern drama and has been performed regularly. Like a number of other Jacobean tragedies (cf. The Duchess of Malfi, The Revenger’s Tragedy…), it draws a portrait of Catholic Italy as seen by Protestant Renaissance England. Decadence, corruption and violence are writ large. The revenge ethic rules in the city of Parma, where you avenge your honour through murder. Rumour and gossip, which eventually bring the incest to light, run through the streets relentlessly.
The play focuses on a pair of twin siblings, Annabella (a very touching Gina Bramhill) and Giovanni (Orlando James), whose forbidden desire will lead to the downfall of their own family and that of Soranzo (Gyuri Sarossy), the nobleman Annabella is swiftly made to marry in order to cover up the scandal of her pregnancy. Still, the revenge machinery cannot be stopped. Vasques (a truly impressive Laurence Spellman), Soranzo’s thuggish, double-dealing Spanish servant, will make sure of that.
Declan Donnellan directs a contemporary, modern-dress production, during which he repeatedly has the whole ensemble dance to disco or folk music. Nick Ormerod, Cheek by Jowl’s designer, has abandoned his trademark minimalist approach to create a typical teenager’s bedroom for Annabella. The single upstage wall is painted red. The arty film posters on it are of old classics (Dial M for Murder, Gone with the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffany’s…), but there is also a large picture of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Heart. There are two doors: one leading to a brightly lit en-suite bathroom, which is where most of the gruesome crimes – murders or mutilations – will happen, the other leading to a reception room, where the wedding celebrations will take place.
Giovanni and Annabella consummate their relationship on the double bed at the centre of the room. Quite often, the whole cast will gather on or around the blood-red sheets as onlookers, which allows for stunning sculptural tableaux à la Caravaggio or David LaChapelle. There is usually something rather sinister about the men scrambling for Annabella’s attention while she is being turned into an icon of desire. Madonna or whore – the two extremes clearly meet in their voyeuristic eyes. Yet, before the play opens, Annabella is alone on the bed, reading and listening to music. When she later poses in her sunglasses, she looks like a teen you might spot sipping a Coke on Via Montenapoleone. The other two female characters – a happily skipping Putana (Nicola Sanderson), Annabella’s bawdy maid, and Hippolita (Hedydd Dylan), a dark femme fatale – are interpreted with equal flair and imagination.
One comic subplot has been cut out so that the action moves with quite brutal velocity towards the final denouement. The staging is wonderfully fluid thanks to overlapping scenes. Some key roles have been radically shortened. Thus, the intellectual debate between Giovanni and his tutor, which sets Renaissance free thinking against the traditional dogmatic vision of the Church, remains largely unexplored.
What audiences get instead is the clash between incestuous desire and the established order. Disturbingly, Annabella seems to become more innocent as the play unfolds. The quiet, intimate moments she spends looking at the prettiest of baby clothes together with Soranzo only make the final showdown more shocking, although Donnellan has chosen to leave considerably fewer corpses in its wake.
All in all, this was yet another strikingly inventive Cheek by Jowl production. Not only did it offer the clearest possible delivery of Ford’s verse; even better, it made you look at the play with new eyes.

’Tis Pity She’s A Whore was at the Grand Théâtre on 15, 16 and 17 November.
Janine Goedert
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