‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 19-05-11

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore has always had the power to shock, ever since it was first published in 1633, and it isn’t just because of the themes of incest, violence and murder which storm their way through the plot, it is also the ambiguity of John Ford’s treatment of them. Horrific violence is sanctioned by the cold and corrupt church, while the incestuous lovers, brother and sister Annabella and Giovanni, are young, innocent and thoroughly likeable. They are victims of both the society which they live in and the passion which they are unable to control rather than wicked sinners, and they are well aware of it. The play begins with Giovanni making frantic efforts to find help from the church. He is terrified of the eternal damnation which he is risking if he allows his passion full rein. He needs help, but all he finds when he makes his confession is shocked condemnation and an order to repent. If only love was that easy to extinguish, if it were then many of the characters in ‘Tis Pity would be alive and happy at the end and we could all go home early. As you watch the terrible consequences of loving the wrong people being played out you find yourself wondering along with Giovanni whether their love can ever really be so wrong. That is what shocks. Love is capricious, powerful and dangerous, and it can destroy lives but we don’t like to face up to that, we prefer me to you bears and hearts and flowers. That is John Ford’s real subject in this play. Arabella has other suitors, including a terrific candidate in Soranzo, a kind, good looking rich young man who loves her deeply, but it makes no difference. It isn’t him that she wants and needs. Soranzo himself has the devotion of Hippolita a stunning married woman who he has had an affair with. He has made some unwise promises of marriage along the way and she has believed them and packed off her husband on a dangerous (and ultimately fatal) voyage for Soranzo’s sake. She is driven to eventual destruction when he refuses to fulfil his promises and condemns her actions. Nothing she can do is going to make any difference. He doesn’t want her any more. She was no more than a dalliance whatever she was made to believe. Violence is an everyday part of the society in which the play is set, and a scene of horrific carnage is the end result of this simple inability to love where it is convenient and requited. This play is very strong meat indeed and no wonder people have found it hard to take. There are no easy judgements for an audience to hide behind and no avoiding of terrible consequences. Little hope is left for anyone at the end when youth and hope lie massacred. Only the empty meaningless words of the cardinal are left as cold comfort, and when he speaks the final line. “ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”, we have been very clearly shown how little credence we should give his false pity.

A play like this needs a great production. You had better have enormous truth and self belief as a company if you are going to avoid the pitfalls. This is very in your face theatre, close to grand guignol if it were done badly, and you really don’t want an actor to get laughs in the wrong places. Putting it on is always going to be a risk. The team at the West Yorkshire Playhouse have really done John Ford proud. The sex and violence is perfectly handled, totally explicit while revealing little, and the complex nature of the characters and their relationships is fully explored and developed. The direction is exact and unfussy and the play is beautifully staged on sets which make good use of the vast space of the Quarry Theatre and move the play along like an express train heading towards the buffers. The 1960’s Italian setting which has been chosen fits the play perfectly. It allows for the stifling obsession with family, violence and religion which are a major part of the play and gives an opportunity for lots of style. It also allows Annabella and Hypollita to give chillingly powerful performances of Secret Love and Anyone Who Had a Heart. There is a horribly apt undercurrent of danger beneath the simple schmaltz as they sing which freezes your blood.

I can’t remember the last time that I looked for the name of the casting director in a theatre programme but Sam Jones, a former head of casting for the RSC, certainly deserves a mention. This production is strongly and cleverly cast, with young, inexperienced but extremely talented actors in the young lead roles backed up by very experienced actors in the older parts. This was a brave choice and it has really paid off. Damien Molony gives the best stage debut as Giovanni that I have ever seen in over thirty years of theatre going. He is very touching at the start, young, vulnerable and anxious to do the right thing. When he is unable to resist consummating his love and the incest finally becomes public his life is destroyed. Love me or kill me has been the mantra of the couple and now that he can no longer love his sister there is only one choice left. He is quite terrifying as he casts caution to the wind, half unhinged, holding her heart skewered on a knife above his head, knowing that nothing can hurt him now, not even eternal damnation. Quite a part, and quite an actor and I am glad that they found each other. Sara Vickers is a worthy partner for him as Annabella, gentle simple hearted and loving- anything but a whore. I also liked Sebastian Reid very much as Soranzo. He gave a very stylish and truthful performance and one which I could thoroughly sympathise with.

Among the more experienced players the stand out performance for me was that of Sally Dexter as Hippolita, a knockout of a stylish, experienced older Italian woman and one who would most certainly have attracted the attentions of a good looking young man like Soranzo. She was full of passion and desperation and I felt for her.

I left the theatre very moved and quite shaken. I wonder how many plays written today will still have the capacity to do that to people after almost four hundred years?

The photographs are production stills by Ellie Kurttz, used by kind permission of the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

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One comment on “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 19-05-11

  1. Peter says:

    Totally agree – a great performance from both of them.

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