sun 26/05/2024

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

'Tis Pity She's a Whore, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Pints of blood but no real tragedy in this season opener

'Never yet have incest and murder so strangely met': Annabella and Giovanni seal their downfall with a kissSimon Kane

So TFL have banned the Globe’s posters for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore for being too racy. What a gift. They couldn’t have given the production a better advertising boost if they’d covered every single one of their thousands of billboards with the barely-naked bodies of the show’s two attractive young leads. John Ford – still shocking audiences and sticking two bloody fingers up at the censors 400 years later. Well played.

And anyone who goes to Michael Longhurst’s new production for gore and erotic taboos will certainly get their fill. There’s nothing coy about the incestuous relationship between brother and sister Giovanni (Max Bennett) and Annabella (Fiona Button), who couple urgently and nakedly just feet away from the audience. The famous entrance involving a human heart impaled on a dagger is every bit as confronting, the centrepiece of a drama that spurts and oozes with pints of fake blood. Those who fainted at the Globe’s Titus earlier this year are going to wish they hadn’t peaked so soon.

This is revenge tragedy in its death throes

But no amount of sensation can distract from the quiet lack at the heart of the play itself – an organ as limply lifeless as Annabella’s own. To set it in context, ‘Tis Pity was probably written some 30 years after Shakespeare’s Titus, perhaps 15 after last season’s Wanamaker opener The Duchess of Malfi and potentially 50 after The Spanish Tragedy. This is revenge tragedy in its death throes, a drama desperately trying to up the ante for an audience numbed to all possible horrors, and losing its footing in the process.

Longhurst has made his name in contemporary theatre and new writing, and here seems unsure what to do when his traditional dramatic “conversation with the writer” has to take place across a divide of centuries. Judging by designer Alex Lowde’s costumes (Jacobean by way of Shoreditch), his intention is to sharpen the tragedy’s edges with contemporary touches – a friction only heightened by the emphatic period faithfulness of the Wanamaker Playhouse itself. But it’s a half-hearted gesture. Cheek by Jowl showed us recently just how potent a slash-and-burn contemporary take on the text can be, and period naturalism might have been a more effective response than a diluted echo of a younger, funkier show.

But even if Longhurst’s desire “to avoid historical re-enactment” blunts aspects of drama and music (Simon Slater’s score – a Mass setting whose movements slot between scenes – is an uneasy mishmash of styles), his cast still generate some striking moments. The energy between Button (pictured left) and Bennett in the early scenes is unusually fresh, a romping innocence that turns the screw on a tragedy that sets morality on its head, exposing the sincerity and beauty of an incestuous love while damning church and state alike. If Button’s sudden assurance, her cold defiance of Soranzo (Stefano Braschi), seems to come from nowhere, then it’s a suddenness echoed in the text.

James Garnon, here in full comic spate, runs riot through the centre of the drama with his brilliance, risking rebalancing the drama with his Woosterish Bergetto, and elevating sub-plot to central drama. Bergetto’s death (like the Malfi murder last season) benefits from the complete darkness of this space, transforming an unlikely mistaken-identity stabbing into something horribly plausible. A late shift to the role of Cardinal gives Garnon the final word, wringing every oozing drop of self-serving, hypocritical ambition from the titular line.

Philip Cumbus’s Vasquez is deliciously banal, a villain in no hurry to search for a motive, and whose violence is all the more terrifying for being so carefully considered. His natural foil is devoted-but-dim Poggio (Dean Nolan), a retainer whose warmth is unexpectedly matched by his wriggling hips in the final ensemble caper.

‘Tis Pity marks the start of the second season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, and the space has lost none of its charged intimacy. What it lacked last night was a director prepared to work with that rather than against its character. The close-set walls of the Wanamaker can frame, embrace or invite as much as they can imprison or entrap. Longhurst’s drama spends too much time trying to break free of confines that don’t exist using the rather blunt weapon of Ford’s tragedy. By the end of the evening there’s barely a dent in the wooden theatre, and still less of one in our emotions.

The energy between Button and Bennett is unusually fresh, turning the screw on a tragedy that sets morality on its head


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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