Review: 'Tis Pity She's A Whore ~ theatre notes

Friday, February 18, 2011

Review: 'Tis Pity She's A Whore

It's unsurprising that the 20th century saw a renewal of interest in the Jacobean tragedies. Aside from their unapologetic theatricality, which generates its realism from extreme emotional truths, their dark machineries reflected a godless world in which human passion flamed out and extinguished itself in a materialistic, cynical and bloodily hierarchical society. Morality in this universe walks uneasily. It's easy to see why the playwright Howard Barker, whose fierce polemics created the Theatre of Catastrophe, wrote a contemporary version of Middleton's Women Beware Women.


Women - their role, their power, their destruction in the crushing sexual morals of their time - are at the centre of these tragedies, and John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore is no exception. When the Jacobean tragedies were written, political and public life was dominated by men. There were, however, notable exceptions, just as there are now: women such as Elizabeth I and Lucrezia Borgia subverted the expectations and limitations of the social roles expected of their sex, and the conflicts raised by their presences are reflected in the plays.

'Tis Pity She's A Whore goes further, baldly introducing incestuous love between a brother and sister - a brooding subtext in plays like The Duchess of Malfi. In a moral twist which for centuries made the play especially scandalous, Ford transforms his doomed siblings into tragic embodiments of romantic love. This sexual transgression occurs in a society in which honour killings are the norm: it exposes a nakedly misogynistic society in which women flail against social restrictions that are ultimately murderous. Interestingly, this aspect is seldom remarked upon, perhaps because honour killings are most commonly thought of as an oriental disease; but in the Malthouse's hugely ambitious production the question of male honour is opened out into contemporary sexual violence.

As this is Marion Potts's first production for the Malthouse as new artistic director, it's been hotly anticipated; and with such a weight of expectation, perhaps it's not surprising that one of the responses is a nagging disappointment. Potts delivers on many levels: this is a a richly sensuous show, visually and sonically layered to generate an operatic pitch of feeling. In its best moments, it promises a great deal; but it never quite delivers. At the heart of its problems is the dramaturgy, which is, in a singular feat, at once crude and obscure.

'Tis Pity follows the story of Annabella (Elizabeth Nabben) and Giovanni (Benedict Samuel), the children of the wealthy Florio (Richard Piper), who fall in love and, with the connivance of Annabella's nurse Putana (Laura Lattuada), consummate their passion. There are various subplots, of which the most important concerns Hippolita (Alison Whyte), the betrayed and vengeful lover of one of Annabella's suitors, Soranzo (John Adam). When Annabella falls pregnant, she is urged to marry Soranzo to cover her disgrace; when he discovers her pregnancy, Soranzo's servant Vasque (Anthony Brandon Wong) seeks out the name of the lover whom she will not reveal to her husband, and helps Soranzo to plot revenge. Cue a lot of knives and a welter of blood.

Anna Cordingley's design dramatically fills the Merlyn stage with three playing levels constructed out of huge shipping containers. At ground level are two containers, their exteriors scrawled with grafitti, which create room-like tunnels. They support the central playing area, a long trucking container lined with tarpaulins that is painted with Tiepolo-style murals and littered with strangely cartoonish versions of Renaissance furniture. In Paul Jackson's heavily shadowed lighting design, this space is flooded with golden light, so that it plays like a fantasy inside the industrial decor of the set. Finally, on top of this container is an eyrie with a harpsichord, where there is a gorgeously costumed singer (Julia County).


The sound design - a mixture of Elizabethan arias composed by Andrée Greenwell and a densely textured electronic score performed live by Jethro Woodward - takes on a lot of the work of the heavily cut text, in particular heightening the emotional pitch. Some dialogue is sung, and otherwise the wordless voice weaves through the speeches. At the best moments, this creates a thrilling uplift. Significantly, it echoes a long tradition of wordless expression among women in misogynistic societies, in which cries and tears, such as the extravagant public sobbings of the 15th century mystic Margery of Kempe or the keening of widows in early 20th century Cretan funerals, become potent expressions of subversion. (There is a strand of criticism which ascribes the same impetus to Lady Gaga). For me, this is a powerful trope within the production.

However, I think the production relies too much on the music to generate its emotional power. The original play is cut to the bone - the original 16 characters are cut to nine (Woodward is given a character name, but never does anything more than the music), excising many marginal characters such as Hippolita's husband or Annabella's various suitors. Perhaps what it most crucially loses in this cutting is any sense of transgression: for example, removing Friar Bonaventura, who in the original is Giovanni's confessor, means there is no sense of a societal morality against which to measure the sins of the children. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, when the incest is first revealed we just get the nurse saying more or less that Giovanni is hot, and that she can't blame Annabella for wanting to get into bed with him.

We are left with the twin poles of male violence and sexual betrayal, with little sense of the social constraints in which they vibrate and intensify. An important thread is the introduction of B (Chris Ryan), presumably a version of the comic relief Bergetto, who opens the play with a superb performance of a contemporary would-be stud. Aside from its irresistible echoes of Hayloft's Thyestes, Ryan's character is unclearly linked to the action on the stage above him: at first he is a contemporary counterpoint, but later, somewhat confusingly, he enters the action itself as a narrator and a masked figure of death.

This lack of clarity extends to the structure of the adaptation, where important actions are often shorn of motivation and leap up out of nowhere. It's not at all clear, for example, why Giovanni kills Annabella. Richard Piper's character Florio is reduced to a few lines, a kind of patriarchal scarecrow, which means that his death, however well performed (it was about all Piper had to do onstage) has very little dramatic payoff. Vasques is similarly a Iago-like cipher of evil. And sometimes I just was lost.

Some of this confusion could have been also because some of the cast members couldn't get around Ford's language, and there were times when I couldn't hear important dialogue. The shining exception is Alison Whyte, whose performance is riveting, and undoubtedly will be one of the performances of this year: she unwaveringly enters the extremities of Hippolita and carries us with her in a physically and vocally astounding performance.

For all my reservations, it's well worth a look: I'd far rather see this kind of flawed ambition than any number of smug successes, and there are moments of real power. More generally, it signals a Malthouse that intends to continue to challenge and explore. And that is an encouraging thought.

Picture: top, Chris Ryan; bottom, cast of 'Tis Pity She a Whore. Photos: Jeff Busby

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, by John Ford, directed by Marion Potts. Original music by Andrée Greenwell, set and costumes by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Paul Jackson, sound design by Jethro Woodward, dramaturgy by Maryanne Lynch. With John Adam, Julia County, Laura Lattuada, Elizabeth Nabben, Richard Piper, Chris Ryan, Benedict Samuel, Alison Whyte, Anthony Brandon Wong and Jethro Woodward. Malthouse Theatre @ the Merlyn, until March 5.

11 comments:

Nicola said...

Hi Alison,
Just a little correction for Annabella's actor name: it's Elizabeth Nabben.
Thanks for the review!

Rhys said...

great review Alison. I too was left scratching my head at some of the loose strands that were left unconnected. I think it failed in that it didn't make me feel anything, nor did it really prompt much fresh thought or discussion. It's a shame because you can see that the play and the subject matter begs to be talked about in the foyer, but all i could think was "pretty 'solid' theatre" - which is a phrase I am beginning to loathe.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Nicola - thanks for the subbing note. Arrgh. Well, at least I can say that my surname suffers similar indignities. Will fix at once.And thanks Rhys. I did feel something, but I wonder if that's partly a gendered response - ie, I was responding to the themes I speak of in the review?

Chris Boyd said...

...the children of the aristocrat Florio...

Er, no. As Hippolita rather cattily points out, Annabella is no aristocrat. She refers to her as "madam-merchant" to Vasques. "My birth was nobler, and by much more free."

Lisa Hopkins argues that Annabella and Giovanni's real crime is not so much incest as the commission of incest while "belonging... merely to the merchant class"!!

Soranzo is a nobleman tho.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Chris. I should have just put "wealthy". In fact, I will do that now.

Chris Boyd said...

I rather liked the slashing to the bone. But it is exactly this kind of class/power nuance that is lost.

I wondered about 'B'. Apart from Bergetto, it could've been B for the "banditti" (hence his appearance at the end of the play robbing the bodies) or, equally, B for Bonaventura (the Friar). Ryan's part used some of the Friar's words (especially from the speech about damnation to Annabella). B also delivered the Cardinal's closing speech. 'Tis pity... an' all that jazz.

Chris Boyd said...

P.S. I decided B was one of the damned in the Friar's speech. Hence the pick-ups without gettin' satisfaction (or, indeed, the girl he wanted)... But I'll get into that on Teh Blog. Real Soon Now.

Alison Croggon said...

B is obviously a conflation. But I figured it was Bergetto because of the "'Sfoot, I'll have the wench" & the comic business with the love letter, etc.

Alison Croggon said...

And re the slashing to the bone: it can work without losing (much) nuance, but it's a tricky matter of focus. A brilliant example is The War of the Roses. I think here action is mistaken for plot.

Cameron Woodhead said...

One more teensy mistake.

"the Cardinal, who in the original is Giovanni's confessor" ...

Actually, he isn't. Friar Bonaventura is. Giovanni doesn't confront the Cardinal until the end, heart on dagger and all.

On another note, I'm impressed and a bit weirded out that you managed to get Margery Kempe and Lady Gaga into the same par!

My feeling is that if the music was supposed to augment the suppressed voices of women in this production, the play shouldn't have been slashed. In the original, Annabella's more spoken about than speaking, so it would make sense. With the cut they've used, her part is robust and the music loses its rationale.

For me, too, the edit lost the rampant corruption and hypocrisy of the play's world. They're all just misogynistic bastards BECAUSE ... It's noteworthy that religion is almost completely excised. A mistake, I think, unless they'd radically reworked it in a contemporary setting.
It certainly wasn't "a tale whose every word threatens eternal slaughter to the soul", as the Friar puts it.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for joining the Croggon subbing club, Cameron. A stupid error, which I shall fix NOW.

I wish I could say the connection between women mystics and Lady Gaga was mine alone, but it is not.

The Jacobean tragedies are often very difficult to translate to the present, because the whole plot turns on something - usually a woman's virtue - that isn't life and death (except in societies under Sharia law - I've sometimes wondered if anyone has thought of doing a version like that). The misogyny is Tis Pity strikes me as still contemporary, and incest is still taboo, so there is something to work with in this one. But yes, I agree it needs context, if not religion, then some other kind of moral authority. Otherwise, it's hard to see what's at risk.