Tis Pity She's A Whore

This review of our production of Tis Pity She's A Whore in November 2015, was written by John Grisbrooke and first appeared in Offbeat News, our bi-monthly newsletter.

It is difficult to think of a more controversial play in the English canon. Yet the core of John Ford's tragedy (quarto publication 1633) - incest between brother and sister - is handled with great decorum and grudging sympathy. The ill-fated couple, Giovanni (Ryan Pearson) and Annabella (Louise Parr) can attract understanding and commiseration, even if their relationship has almost always been totally taboo.

Paul Morton's production was decidedly pacy, arguably benefiting from the omission of the Richardetto and Bergetto sub-plots to concentrate on the central dilemma to maintain momentum. The use of the projected and enlarged stage, two subordinate entry points and, of course, the balcony provided a good deal of flexibility and stage movement, a reminder that the play is located in various settings in Parma. This was a further useful gambit to enhance continuity.

The costumes and what few props were deemed necessary - mainly poniards - felt very contemporaneous. While there must have been a temptation, given the enduring nature and universality of the theme, to adopt modern dress, such a ploy would have felt incongruous with Ford's 17th century voice, blank verse and musicality. In fact, Vasques' (Alex Brace) black attire seemed richly symbolic as the scheming, treacherous manservant to Soranzo (Chris Janes). Ambiguously Annabella was dressed throughout in virginal white, a nice touch to spark moralistic musings.

The casting too was of high order both in breadth and depth, so providing a very satisfying all-round performance. The two lovers inevitably carried a heavy load. Giovanni evinced a full range of emotions: ardent in his wooing, soul-searching, impetuous to a degree of foolhardiness in his decision to attend Soranzo's birthday celebration. Annabella grew in complexity, as the tragedy unfolded. Her early tentativity gave way to fevered expectation, passion and eventual resignation to her destiny and the heart-rending inevitability of her death.

Chris Janes provided both nuance and stature to his portrayal of the lordly and conceited Soranzo. The complexity of the role allowed a wealth of shifting interpretations but he was at his best (or was it worst?) as the bullying, jealous husband of Annabella, as he strove to wrest from her the name of her secret lover. Was he truly in love with his young wife or was she merely another pawn in his proven duplicity, a characteristic he shared so amply with his loyal servant, Vasques?

Annabella's governess, Putana, (Sarah Doyle Smith) fell easily for Vasques' wiles but purity was not her strong point in her encouragement of Annabella's fall from grace. Only Hippolita (Mary Powell), as Soranzo's fiesty, discarded lover, seemed impervious to the all-pervading evil yet she too fell prey to Vasques' easy blandishments.

Certain scenes remain memorable for different and telling reasons. I have already referred to the confrontation between Annabella and Soranzo but equally enthralling was the gentle unfolding of the lovers' illicit attraction, notwithstanding Giovanni's tortured soul and his sister's moral compunction. This honesty was in stark contrast with Vasques' hypocritical machinations towards both Hippolita and Putana, his dispassionate poisoning of the former and his self-seeking duplicity towards the latter.

Similarly Friar Bonaventura (Paul Russell) adopted a different stance in his guidance to his two erring charges. Towards Giovanni he appealed for abstinence and redemption. For Annabella the only recourse was the brutal path to perdition, as he strove to shrive her.

The audience faces a dilemma. Boundaries are blurred. Integrity is at a premium and honesty is more or less a byword. This vigorous, abridged version did justice to the challenges at the heart of the piece.

My recollection of the play in its full text is that Florio (Barry Grossman), father of the wayward youngsters, dies of apoplexy, as the full horror unfolds. The final body count then would be five. Not quite of Duchess of Malfi proportions but both an unambiguous religious and ethical reminder that ‘the wages of sin is death'.