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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
’TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE
at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

MUDDY MORALITY
By RACHEL HALLIBURTON

  Fiona Button and Stefano Braschi/ Ph: Simon Kane

The sins of the flesh are on full display in this sharp-as-a-blade, simmeringly erotic production of John Ford’s 1629 incest drama 'Tis Pity She’s a Whore. In the exquisite Jacobean-style indoor theatre at the Globe, illuminated entirely by candles, director Michael Longhurst deploys light and dark – in both the visual and moral sense – to disconcerting effect. The play opens in Friar Bonaventure’s confessional where, under the shadow of eternal damnation, Max Bennett’s bookish yet dashing Giovanni ecstatically confesses his love for his sister Annabella. The echoes of Romeo and Juliet portend both optimism and tragedy, yet here it is clearly implied that Giovanni’s problems will not end with his death if he does not repent.
 
Against this dark Manichean backdrop, Longhurst has managed to paint a gloriously nuanced account of the way the star-crossed lovers’ fate unfolds, imbued with all the humour and irony of Ford’s bar-rattlingly provocative text. Part of this is the way the production plays against appearances. Fiona Button’s Annabella is dressed like a medieval maid, with demurely tied blond hair and a virginal white dress and ruff, yet she exudes a humorous worldly wisdom that indicates she understands precisely the implications of her choice. By contrast, Bennett’s devilish red attire is contradicted by the innocently idealistic tone of his seduction. The ecstatic lovemaking scene (with nudity that has led to the production’s posters being banned on the underground) clearly shows how the joyful light of this union eclipses – for both – the dark concerns of the corrupt society surrounding them.
 
The strong leads are ably complemented by the cast of psychotics, eccentrics and false moralists whose fates are entangled with their own. At the point of her seduction by her brother, Annabella is being wooed by three official suitors: the dignified yet sinister Soranzo, the menacing Grimaldi and a Boris-Johnson-style buffoon, Bergetto. James Garnon’s Bergetto steals entire scenes with his adroit blend of clownishness and pathos. Made an outsider by his extreme stupidity, he – like the central characters – is blessed by true love, only to be brought down by the murderous machinations of those around him. Another bright splash of colour in this ethically muddy universe is Morag Siller’s bawdy Romeo-and-Juliet-style nurse, who eggs on her charge with all the humorous compassion of one who understands the importance of seizing happiness in a turbulent, hypocritical world.
 
Yet the forces of violence have already been unleashed, both in the form of the psychosis of Jethro Skinner’s suitably menacing Grimaldi and the vengeful jealousy of Daniel Rabin’s Richardetto, a husband cuckolded by Soranzo. When Annabella falls pregnant, the need to embrace social convention takes the lovers from their private world of happiness to an environment in which survival is impossible. Thanks to this superb staging, every step of this terrible journey is as gripping as it is shocking. The cardinal’s final condemnation – that it is one woman’s sluttishness that is the root cause of all the evil around her – has all too many resonances in a world where honor killings and other violent repressions of female sexuality remain a terrifying and present reality.

 


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