’Tis Pity She’s a Whore
When the applause died down and the actors left the stage, the elderly woman next to me asked what I thought about the show. "I loved it; it was delightful," I said, "How about you?" "It was an abomination," she replied. And that pretty much sums up Cheek by Jowl’s performance of "’Tis Pity She’s a Whore."
This Jacobean tragedy was written by John Ford in the mid-1600s. The English classic deals with religion, vengeance, incest and violence, and is still shocking after 400 years. Set in Italy, the tale unfolds against a background of disastrous lust and corruption. "’Tis Pity She’s a Whore" tells the story of Giovanni and his sister Annabella, who become involved in an incestuous love affair that ends in absolute catastrophe.
The play has always sparked major controversy, and has been labeled one of the most scandalous works of English literature ever penned. Perhaps this challenge is what drew the talented group to the production.
London’s celebrated Cheek by Jowl was established in 1981 by co-Artistic Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod. Their mission is to" re-examine classical texts and focus on the actor’s art." The company has performed in 330 cities in over 40 countries and adapted anything from "The Duchess of Malfi" to "Macbeth." With numerous classic works under their belt, both in translation and their original form, this prestigious troupe of actors has garnered worldwide acclaim.
Directors Donnellan and Owen Horsley presented us with a modern staging. The length of the play was centered in Annabella’s bedroom, and perhaps more importantly her bathroom, where the most atrocious of acts take place behind a closed door.
We are introduced to our leading lady sitting atop her bed in her devilishly red room. Her walls are plastered with modern pop culture icons that exude lust (HBO’s "True Blood" is front and center with a poster of a wet tongue gliding over lush lips).
Annabella is played beautifully by Gina Bramhill. The young actress paints a picture of an emotionally tortured sister that is a dazzling cross between harlot and martyr. She takes us through her confusing and painful journey proving she’s neither of the two, rather a simple human vulnerable to worldly temptations.
Giovanni, brother and seducer, is played by Orlando James. He does a masterful job as a soul consumed by lust and desire, and we are eyewitness to his mad descent from a troubled, lovestruck man, to a crazed, uncontrollable killer.
Gyuri Sarossy played an intense, and sometimes horrifying, Soranzo, who succeeds in courting and marrying Annabella. His honorable reputation wins her hand over numerous other suitors, but we soon see this nobility savagely thrown out the window when his wife’s dark secrets come to light. Sarossy managed to brilliantly capture the emotion of a broken man on the brink of extreme violence.
Charming in her own right was Hedydd Dylan, who took on the role of scorned widow Hippolita. Rejected and wronged by Soranzo, she vows to take her revenge, which ultimately leads to her demise. Dylan did a splendid job portraying this pitiless creature, enthralling the audience up until her last poisoned (and foamy) breath.
Laurence Spellman gives a vibrant performance as the conniving, yet loyal, Vasques, servant to Soranzo. He is both loathsome and likeable. Nicola Sanderson is also wonderful as the spirited chambermaid to Annabella. She brings some much needed comic relief to an otherwise dismal story, and her untimely end will leave you in absolute shock.
Many liberties are taken with the original work. The directors accelerate the exhibitionism by throwing in dance numbers, shirtless male revues, and techno music, but the effort only seems to make the impending doom of the outcome more macabre.
There is also plenty of nudity, and ample amounts of blood and gore, but perhaps the most disturbing effect was a phantasmal, illusive doorway to hell with dark shadows reaching and groping towards the audience. This image left a chill in me well after the production ended.
So, whether you embrace the darkness of this classic tale, or repel from it in horror, "’Tis Pity She’s a Whore," way down to its very core, is unequivocally a "delightful abomination." And I’m perfectly all right with that.