‘TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE
Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Saturday 4th February, 2012
John Ford’s 17th century pot-boiler is given a contemporary setting in Cheek By Jowl’s touring production. Central to the set is a bed, complete with random junk underneath it, and clothes and detritus strewn around it, as though Tracey Emin was the maid. The cast dance on in smart suits. There’s a Reservoir Dogs/Guy Ritchie gangster vibe – these are people with their own code and people who do not shy from using violence to impose their will.
Straight away, we are flung into a world of incest and betrayals. Giovanni (Jack Gordon) impregnates his own sister, Annabella (Lydia Wilson), who is then married off to Soranzo (Jack Hawkins) who doesn’t appreciate her tainted state and sets servant Vasques (Laurence Spellman) to discover the identity of the baby’s father. Vasques, delivering his lines in the broadest East End of London accent, is darkly funny. He thwarts the plot of spurned widow Hippolita (Suzanne Burden) to poison his employer, and seduces and tortures the truth from Annabella’s maid, Putana (Lizzie Hopley).
A door upstage leads to a bathroom. It is in here that most of the nastiness and violence takes place. We glimpse it, we overhear it, we imagine the worst. This makes any onstage unpleasantness more shocking. Director Declan Donnellan infuses the production with a wealth of ideas. There is a mixture of the sacred and the profane. The bed becomes an altar; the cast form tableaux based on religious images. They murmur prayers beneath the action. They sing Latin incantations. They dance a conga, filing past the Cardinal to kiss his ring, in a parody of ritual. The humour counterpoints the dark subject matter and the company of actors give a physically demanding and vocally diverse performance.
There is a great deal of taking off of shirts and throwing them away. Everything ends up on the bedroom floor. It is a violation of a private space, in keeping with the subject matter.
The ending is cut. The characters are left reeling in shock at the discovery of Annabella’s mutilated body, while Giovanni sits on the bed, holding his sister’s heart, altogether insane. This is somehow bleaker than the multiple deaths and reckonings Ford supplies, in this context at any rate.
It is a gripping production with plenty going on throughout. A wealth of ideas serves the plot and the transposition to a contemporary setting works very well. Cream of the crop for was Laurence Spellman as the plain-speaking factotum and also Jack Hawkins as Soranzo, a nasty piece of work with a gloss of respectability. You wouldn’t want him coming at you with a wire coat hanger. But really the entire company proves yet again that Cheek By Jowl create entertaining, intriguing and innovative work, imbuing classic texts with new life.