We can probably assume that early 17th-century theatergoers were shocked by John Ford’s best-remembered tragedy, which is essentially a never-ending parade of naughty sex and bloodshed and concludes with the now-famous line, “Who could not say ‘tis pity she’s a whore?” Although that line has been removed from the play’s latest revival, the point still gets across.
Ford, whose work is generally neglected along with many other worthy contemporaries of Shakespeare, has been enjoying a mini-renaissance of new interest this season. Last month, Theatre for a New Audience revived The Broken Heart, another highly regarded tragedy. And now Cheek by Jowl, the company known for its bold, minimalist revivals of the classics under the direction of Declan Donnellan, is bringing its own idiosyncratic take on ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.
The play, which many describe as a harsher, less romantic version of Romeo and Juliet, focuses on young Annabella (Lydia Wilson), who has countless suitors begging for her hand in marriage. Unfortunately, Annabella is easily seduced by her older brother Giovanni (Jack Gordon), who ignores his priest’s advice by embracing his incestuous, erotic desires.
When Annabella becomes pregnant, she is immediately married off to the suitor Soranzo (Jack Hawkins), who is none too thrilled to learn that she is already with child and insists upon taking revenge. He plucks out the eyes of Annabella’s maid, who oversaw and condoned the brother-sister relationship. Meanwhile, Giovanni, finally rejected by his sister, literally rips her heart out, causing their father to die of grief.
This Cheek by Jowl staging is nothing like its austere 2011 production of Macbeth, which also played Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater. Whereas Macbeth had virtually no set, props or costumes, this is set in and around a contemporary teenage girl’s bedroom. Pretty much everything in her room is red. To stress the girl’s gothic tastes, the walls are lined with posters of The Vampire Diaries along with vintage items such as Dial M for Murder and Gone with the Wind. There’s also a canvas painting of a big-breasted Virgin Mary.
The entire 12-member cast remains onstage for the bulk of the production, observing the illicit proceedings as a kind of community. Donnellan has also streamlined the text, removing several subplots so that it runs just under two hours without an intermission.
The freewheeling, oversexed production has its moments of ingenuity, especially when brutal acts are committed in an offstage bathroom adjoining the bedroom, but too often the original text is undermined by Donnellan’s choices. As played by Wilson, Annabella comes off as strange and confident instead of young and innocent. And why is the cast constantly engaging in physical horseplay and sexual grinding movements?
Nevertheless, Wilson proves to be a captivating actress, and is nicely complimented by Gordon’s earnest and longing Giovanni. Suzanne Burden is also terrific as the tragic widow Hippolita, who is rejected by her lover and then poisoned by his servant at Annabella’s wedding.