All entries for Sunday 05 February 2012

February 05, 2012

'Tis Pity She's a Whore (Cheek by Jowl) @ Warwick Arts Centre

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Cheek by Jowl have revolutionised my understanding of early modern dramatists time and again - Shakespeare with its Twelfth Night, Middleton with its The Changeling, and now John Ford with a stunning new 'Tis Pity. This was my third production of the play following an excellent student version at Warwick and a stripped-back domestic version at Liverpool, and the play has never ceased to amaze me. Yet Cheek by Jowl's unique physical environment and ongoing interrogation of theatrical space once more turned the play on its head for me, creating a powerfully contemporary piece that nonetheless spoke seriously to the play's dark heart.

Following Macbeth, the company has rediscovered sets. Building on devices used successfully in its Russian version of The Tempest, this production cleverly integrated a fixed stage image with the use of implied and partially glimpsed offstage sets to create clear stage loci that provided a focus for the fluid space. Ostensibly, the entire play took place in Annabella's bedroom. The walls were festooned with posters for vampire television series, classic movies and glam bands, and the large stage was dominated by a red double bed, with a couple of other pieces of furniture gesturing towards the shape of a bedroom. Through doors upstage could be glimpsed her en-suite bathroom and another space that became a reception room, hallway or other space as needed. Yet the space was a set, not a location. Fusing locus and platea in a daring inversion of theatrical space, the play played out in imagined, presented locations which nonetheless all somehow contained Annabella's bed, which became the uncontested focus of every man's gaze. The impression was clear, and in many ways both antithetical to and supportive of Sonia Masai's recent reclamation of the state and city participation in the play: here, whatever else was going on and wherever it was happening, everyone was simultaneously in Annabella's bedroom, attempting to possess or manage her sexuality, to colonise her bed in order to consolidate their own standing. The dynamics of state were exposed in relation to their ongoing possession of a teenage girl's private space.

Thus, the entire cast gathered on her bed to watch Vasques and Grimaldi duel over her; Hippolita stood atop it while she slept while simultaneously taking Soranzo to task over his abandonment of her; Florio sat on it while telling her who she must marry; Vasques wooed Putana on top of it while attempting to discover who had impregnated Annabella; and, finally, the bloodied Giovanni sat on it while carrying Annabella's heart. Ultimately, there was no space for her on it, except in a dismembered sense. From the start it was figured as the centre of attention - the play began with her watching DVDs on her laptop, then putting on music and dancing in the sexualised manner of MTV videos, while the rest of the company entered and danced in formation with her, following her lead as if puppeted by her. This tour de force opening also established the terms by which the play would take place - an overpowering sexuality which Annabella owned and the men wished to take from her.

The entire cast were frequently on stage, meaning that Annabella's every movement was watched and judged. This was not a critique of her actions, but of the watchers who allowed Giovanni free rein but attempted to keep the young girl imprisoned - after all, she was in many ways never able to leave her own bedroom. It also allowed for everyone to be present when referred to, linking the society of the play together in a single claustrophobic space that blurred the boundaries between public and private. Hippolita imaginarily but physically suffocating Annabella was a high point of these crossovers, but more significantly it served to yoke brother and sister throughout the play. Whether lying beside her bed, venerating her while speaking to the friar or filming her during the wedding celebrations, Giovanni was entirely obsessed with the image of his sister, pouring over into excess at every opportunity and, finally, locking her into her room in order that he could murder her.

The two young leads did a fine job. Lydia Wilson gave a physical and supple performance, performing for the men who treated her as a ballerina, a marionette or an icon (including in one spectacular comic moment as Soranzo's hyperbole manifested visually as she stood atop the bed and was crowned as an icon of Mary while the male cast members stripped to their waist and created a tableau of adoration). Jack Gordon's Giovanni, meanwhile, was socially awkward, stilted in speech and focused on one thing. The space between them was kept deliberately obvious at first, and as they admitted their feelings they knelt on either side of the bed, holding hands across to each other before jumping under the sheets. The same pose was replicated at the play's end as she pleaded for her life, the bed now becoming a barrier between them. Fittingly, he brought her up onto the bed and, while they stood, snapped her neck in a moment of shocking brutality.

The visceral nature of the action was made explicit by the fantastic use made of the bathroom. It was in here that Putana and Annabella had their heart-to-heart conversations, while silent male listeners stood outside the door. It was here that Annabella fled to when first throwing up after realising her pregnancy, and where Putana kept the supplies that allowed her to put scent in the room and cover up all traces of sexual activity. Shockingly, it was into the bathroom that a furious Soranzo later forced Annabella, returning only to grab a coathanger from the bedroom with which to perform an amateur abortion, prevented only by Vasques. And it was in here that Giovanni deposited a toolbox before killing Annabella. He took her body into the room and sounds of sawing were heard as the partygoers returned to the stage. The final image was of the cast walking one by one to the door of the bathroom and reacting to what they saw there (we could only see a streak of blood across the wall), closing the play on the final gaze of the spectators who had ultimately all contributed to her death.

The production's clear sympathy with Annabella gave the production a singular attention that extended to the cutting of all subplots - as in the Liverpool production, Bergetto and Poggio, Richardetto (though an anonymous doctor was retained) and Philotis were all cut. Grimaldi and Donado were reduced to single scenes, and even Vasques was heavily cut, losing his part in the final scene. Significantly, the play closed on the gaze at Annabella's body and the distant sound of sirens; but Giovanni remained alive, even as his father keeled over onto the bed beside him. This was not Giovanni's story, other than as the ultimate persecutor of Annabella - he was denied his own tragic conclusion.

However, the Hippolita plot was played out in full length (bar the cutting of Richardetto), offering a contrast to the main story. Suzanne Burden played an aging widow, striving to keep herself young with heavy make-up and attempting to play the vamp to the younger men, including Vasques, who knelt before her in show of obsession with her, playing to her fantasy. Her story was deeply affecting, her attempt to maintain dignity drawing attention to her entire lack of power. For her 'masque', she entered as a masked singer, serenading the wedding party in a back room while Vasques, alone onstage, fixed the drinks. The production played her final joining of the lovers as a convivial joke, and the company continued to laugh as she slowly died, only gradually realising that her cries were real. Yet she was denied a formal mourning, the production instead merging seamlessly into the wedding night, Soranzo beginning to woo Annabella even as the bodies were cleared from the stage. Interestingly, the rant was played initially as bedroom banter; it was only as Annabella (apparently willing to have sex) cried out as Soranzo kissed her bare stomach that he realised she was pregnant. Jack Hawkins was magnificent in this scene, bringing a menace and violence to the character that stemmed from a place of deep-rooted shock. Again, he survived in the play's conclusion, not as a vindication of his violent and controlling actions, but rather in a statement of defiant irrelevance - ultimately, we were not expected to care what happens to any of these men.

The atrocities mounted up elsewhere. Lizzie Hopley's Putana provided comic relief for much of the play, bantering in a naturalistic way that contrasted with the outward-facing delivery of much of the play's dialogue, and concentrating on controlling the represented environment. Yet the character was central to the female-centred reading of the play. Following the wedding, Putana entered to clean her charge's old bedroom, and her quiet actions as she walked around the room - trying on the girl's Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, taking out some old clothes, stealing a chocolate from their usual hiding place - was heartbreaking, she dealing with the loss of her companion. Vasques's subsequent manipulation of her was horrific. He flirted with her on the bed, feeding her chocolates and a glass of wine and flattering her. Then, he arranged for a stripper to enter, who danced for her on the bed and drew her into a gyrating threesome with Vasques. As she finally admitted Annabella's lover, the stripper left the bed while Vasques sat in thought, and she attempted to keep the sexual energy going. On a nod, the stripper came to the bed, pinned her down and began kissing her roughly on the mouth, finally pulling out her tongue with his teeth. She was taken off-stage, screaming wordlessly.

The juxtaposition of the horrific and the hysteric(al) worked powerfully throughout, particularly in a self-consciously bizarre ending as the Cardinal entered and the entire company danced in unison while the bloodied Giovanni walked among them. The images that remained, though, were those of the violence done to women, and Annabella's posters served to remind us of how these images are reinforced at every level of society. The play's title, usually spoken as the final line, was here pointedly removed; there was no whore here, only society's insistence on treating her as one. Beneath the loud music, the dancing, the contemporary references and the tongue in cheek humour, this was one of the most desperate and heartfelt cries against the cultural repression of women that I've yet seen, and to my mind pointed up Ford's own treatment of Annabella, not as a whore, but as a heroine wronged by the society that traps and shapes her.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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