The cast of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore | Sydney Theatre

It’s probably not often a going-on-400-year-old play can make you squirm. Oh sure, Shakespeare can do that, as he presents his moral dilemmas. But in terms of sheer, in-your-face, cut-to-the-chase direct confrontation, John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore comes on strong, like a kind of Jacobean Scorsese. And, God only knows, Ford had hard acts to follow, coming in hot on the heels of Marlowe, Shakespeare and other notables. Audiences had just about seen it all. And we thought we were jaded. Ford could’ve easily succumbed to shock tactics or gimmicks and ‘Tis Pity certainly has a few shocks in store, but in tackling controversial subject matter, he’s opened up some larger themes. I say opened, but it’s more in the way of open-heart surgery.

UK company Cheek By Jowl has a reputation that precedes it and hasn’t resiled from the full force of Ford’s writing. Director Declan Donellan has taken a tough, vigorous, uncompromising approach, spearheaded by an ingenious, modern set (Nick Ormerod), menacing lighting (Judith Greenwood), earthmoving composition and sound design (Nick Powell) and electric performances, with Lydia Wilson as Annabella and Jack Gordon as her brother Giovanni at the heart of the action. At curtain call, the greatest deference afforded seems to be to the last, by his fellow actors: certainly, it’s a large and demanding performance. The action may unfold in Parma, but there’s no hams to be seen.

Incestuous love, or lust, is bound to end in tears and the relationship that ensues between these two, who succumb, as much as anything to curiosity (on Annabella’s part), a tendency to obsessive thought (Giovanni) and the temptation that comes of taboo (both and, perhaps, anyone) results in impregnation. This not only enlarges Annabella’s womb, but inflames and infects all, within spitting distance and well beyond.

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Of course, the church is one of the first to stick its beak in, invoking guilt and damnation by way of Nyasha Hatendi as the friar, who seems so intense and invasive in his barrage you can’t help wondering if he’s been on the receiving end of something similar, or at least observed it at close hand. While nosey parkers like Pell and Abbott still seek to covertly influence our lives with their faith-based beliefs, this trespass of religion into the whole of society’s affairs shows no sign of abating, so Ford’s implicit criticism of the God squad remains relevant and redolent. Indeed, it seems he may’ve been an atheist, or tended towards such, for he has Giovanni dismiss notions of heaven and hell out of hand, throwing dissent from orthodoxy right in the face of (Father) Bonaventura (who, in the original text, has previously cautioned, “heaven admits no jest!”).

If Ford was seeking to bait religious authorities of the time (or Roman ones, in particular), why the seemingly judgmental title? I’d plump for the possibility Ford’s title peers through the prism of male domination a misogyny, to mock it too. Being nigh-on raped by her rapacious brother and rendered with child hardly makes her a whore. Yet she becomes such, in her brother’s eyes, for marrying and in her husband’s eyes for having had prior relations (no pun intended). Come to think of it, we still here tales of similar things today; yet another of the many strands of this work that enmesh themselves with the present as much as the past. Ford’s play has remained contemporary; more’s the pity, given certain of the material reasons.

Wilson is fragile, petite and lithe, suiting the part perfectly. She isn’t nearly as feeble emotionally though, having something of the contradictory constitution of, say, Lady Macbeth. Indeed, it’s the women in this play who are, in very many ways, the towers of strength, even while the men suffice as pillars of the community. Or pillocks. Her diction is laudable and she can turn on the tears, too. We first see her in her bedroom, listening to music and fantasising about celebrity, men and sex; as you do. Well, as teenagers are wont to do. It’s a great opener, with many of the cast appearing as her male backup dancers, in a Britneyesque figment of her wild, wanton imagination. They can all dance their pants off too. Later, one or two do just that. Jane Gibson’s movement direction clearly deserves every credit.

Gordon channels just the right quotient of bug-eyed dementia: no ham, but a little Hamlet. I wonder, though, if he isn’t more acclimatised to film, as his facial expressions seemed ostensibly blank, although everything else was working and, all in all, it’s a fine performance indeed. I should stress there are no poor or even also-ran performances here. These are the best of British. Suzanne Burden, alone, is ample evidence of that: old school; every expression and gesture is writ as large as her aggrieved character, Hippolita, warrants, and then some; every word spat with venom. She is the pitiable jilted wife of Annabella’s key suitor, the outwardly smooth Soranzo (Jack Hawkins). I say outwardly smooth because, though he’s George Clooney on the surface, under his thin skin is an insecure, immature youth, surrogately fathered by his weary manservant, Vasques.

Vasques (Laurence Spellman) may sound continental, but here he’s a more-Machiavellian-than-most bovver boy, taking care of business, every day. That business entails looking after his master’s interests, at any cost. Kind of like Gordon Wood. Spellman’s vasques is a ranga with a ponytail, a shiny-suited, flash Harry and Cockney accent. His character provides much of the fun and comedy of the play, which is otherwise bathed in blood (even the set is primarily arterial in hue, save for the starkly white bathroom annexe) and clothed in the darkest garments of late-Renaissance tragedy. His every verbal and physical mannerism is carefully calculated, nuanced, meticulous and riotous.

There’s a colourful coterie of other characters, superbly fleshed-out by this quite magnificent ensemble. I can’t imagine ‘Tis Pity being given more dignity or impetus than has been effected through this cat’s whiskers, bee’s knees, duck’s nuts production.

Regardless, some may well be repulsed. Elephants may be endangered, but elephants-in-the-room populations are exploding. This one was untethered in 1633 and is still on the loose, lurking under carpets. A friend of mine with years under her belt as a social worker reluctantly confesses her former caseload revolved overwhelming around incest so, if you’ve any interest in coming to grips with what’s really out there, don’t be backward in coming to Ford, who tackles it head on, as well as grappling, thought-provokingly, with even larger religious, theological, sociopolitical and philosophical questions.

Evidence suggests it may well have been Ford’s first play, held back for some time (‘the first fruits of the author’s leisure’). If so, it ought to rate much higher in the pantheon of classics, as it reflects remarkably mature writing and treatment. ‘Tis pity it’s not on for longer.

The details: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore played the Sydney Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival from January 17-21.

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