Does Cheek by Jowl have a crystal ball? The timeliness of this London-based theatre company’s latest play is positively uncanny. Their production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, currently in performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, is so frighteningly relevant to today’s headlines that one wonders if the company knew what was in store for the United States’ current events and planned their production calendar around it.
John Ford’s play, famed for being one of the most controversial works in English literature, was first published in 1633 (the date of its first production is uncertain). The script has been revised and re-imaged for its current production, streamlining the story by eliminating a few subplots and decreasing the number of deaths. This production, directed by Declan Donnellan, clocks in at a brisk, intermissionless two hours and is a graphic, unsettling and eerily applicable drama for the 21st century.
A sort of reverse Romeo and Juliet, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore introduces the audience to Giovanni and Annabella, two passionate young lovers who also happen to be brother and sister. Instead of belonging to warring families who condemn their relationship, they belong to the same family. After promising to never wed another and consummating the relationship, Annabella discovers she is pregnant and quickly marries Soranzo, one of the many gentlemen vying for her hand. This marriage infuriates Hippolita (Suzanne Burden, excellent), a “lusty widow” who longs to have Soranzo to herself. She begins plotting a revenge with the two-timing, Igao-like servant Vasques (Laurence Spellman) which turns out to have a a bloody outcome. Giovanni, beside himself with jealousy and rage, also plans revenge and a violent, gruesome conclusion is brought upon this incestuous family.
Although originally written in the 1600s, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore possesses an uncanny timeliness that is not only credited to the modern staging that Cheek by Jowl gave this production. All of the action takes place in Annabella’s bedroom, which is decorated solely in shades of red. The entire cast’s costumes are black and white, except for their lingerie, which is also red. Photographs and posters of iconic women adorn the walls, including Holly Golightly, Scarlett O’Hara and numerous cast members from the hit television shows True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. And much of the action onstage takes place in Annabella’s bed, which beckons from the center of the stage. The show also features several choreographed scenes from movement director Jane Gibson that enhance the underlying emotion of a scene.
One of the most controversial and debated aspects of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore is Ford’s failure to condemn his protagonist. Annabella and Giovanni’s relationship is incestuous and thus condemned by the church. However, the supposedly Godly men onstage screaming at Annabella for “yielding to lust” do little to exemplify Christian love. Annabella (played by the gamine Lydia Wilson) and Giovanni (Jack Gordon, in an intense performance) are depicted as the most innocent people in this violently sexual story. Annabella’s inquiring maid Putana (amusingly and tragically played by Lizzie Hopley) knows of the relationship but supports rather than condemns it. Jack Hawkins gives Soranzo depth and sympathy (except during one scene, immediately following his wedding).
The cast of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore includes numerous men, both religious and patriarchal, and an extremely inventive aspect of Donnellan’s staging features the men in the cast to be onstage at all times. When not interacting with other characters, they stand or sit, staring at Annabella’s bed, watching what takes place there. This staging felt all too applicable to this critic, given the recent political dialogue about birth control and reproductive rights. The now iconic photo of the all-male birth control panel frequently came to mind while watching this play, as did the currently controversial Arizona bill about birth control. It is Annabella’s life that is being affected by her sexual activities but it is the men onstage who discuss, debate and merely watch with rapt attention. This staging, which is unsettling, uncomfortable and flat-out frightening, gave the play a much more modern edge than the current clothing, furniture and cultural references.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which is described by one of the characters as a “wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy”, does indeed have a violent and tragic outcome. Let’s hope that the events unfolding in Washington conclude differently.