The sex in your soul will damn you to hell

‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore

Cheek by Jowl

Bristol Old Vic

What can you do with a venerable but notorious tragedy that has offended the critics for centuries but whose subject matter is now both milder and more preposterous than an episode of Shameless? The answer, according to Cheek by Jowl’s current adaptation  of John Ford’s 1633 classic, is to strip out all the subplots, update the action to a twenty-first century teenager’s bedroom, complete with True Blood’ psters on the walls, add a few ‘Glee’-style song and dance routines and play up the violence in the mode of Itchy and Scratchy.

Does it work? As a true representation of Ford’s play – no. As an entertaining evening out – yes. The pace is fast, the action hitting the stage with a machine gun rhythm.  The use of a single set, the bedroom with blood red walls and a clinical white en suite bathroom, and the device of keeping most of the players on stage even when the text tells you that they are supposed to be elsewhere, means that the play can flow seamlessly with no let-up in its almost hysterical hurtling towards destruction. Dialogue is sacrificed for activity, the musical interludes pushing the necessary business along with a hint of wit and a dash of verve.

The plot is reduced to Giovanni’s incestuous relationship with his sister Annabella. A relationship they swiftly consummate with the approval of Annabella’s tutor (in this production played as a libidinous maid), Putana, and which almost as rapidly leads to pregnancy. Meanwhile, Florio, father to the sibling lovers, is trying to arrange his daughter’s marriage. There are a number of bickering suitors, chief among them the nobleman Soranzo, accompanied by his manipulative manservant, Vasques. Soranzo is chosen as the one to marry Annabella. She, needing to marry fast to hide her bastard secret, agrees. Up pops Soranzo’s ex-squeeze, the vampily black-clad widow Hippolyta, furious at being spurned. Hippolyta offers herself to Vasques with promises of marriage if he helps her poison Soranzo.

The wedding occurs; there is a masque; the only one masked is Hippolyta; she sings a song to the couple, declares who she is, offers to drink a toast with Soranzo to mark peace between them. They drink – she announces that his drink was poisoned. But no, Vasques has remained loyal to his master, switched the glasses and Hippolyta dies cursing the newly weds. In the marriage bed Soranzo discovers his wife’s secret and is furious, Vasques only just arriving in time to stop Annabella’s murder. Vasques persuades Soranzo that the father of the child is the one to blame. Annabella and Soranzo come to an agreement to make their marriage work. Vasques promises Soranzo that he will find the identity of Annabella’s lover. With the aid of a male stripper and some strong cocktails Vasques learns the truth from Putana – and as punishment he has her tongue and eyes ripped out. Annabella realises that their secret has been discovered, writes to warn Giovanni but he is too arrogant to listen. Vasques invites Giovanni to Soranzo’s birthday party. Giovanni arrives, goes in to see his sister, cannot persuade her to sleep with him again so kills her. When the party goers arrive in the bedroom Giovanni appears with Annabella’s heart on the end of a dagger, everyone is appalled and the play ends in confusion.

Which is all jolly bracing stuff if not good clean fun. But, because even after death characters reappear on stage as part of the supporting cast, it took a while for me to realise that all the women had been killed and all the men survived. Is this emphasis on the violence against women a contemporary gloss, or a throwback to an earlier view of the play? It is not explicit in Ford’s original where Giovanni, Soranzo and other men are also murdered or die as a result of the violence. Meanwhile, the shock of the incest is downplayed, giving it a more Skins like feel of excusable youthful excess than the breaking of a major social taboo. This twin re-balancing left me with a disquieting taste of misogyny and very little else. By stripping out the subplots, the adaptation has also removed the few hints of redemption which Ford allows to lighten the leaven of gore. What you are left with is akin to listening to Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads without hearing the last track, ‘Death is Not the End’.

So, this is an interesting, but not ultimately satisfying evening out. There are some good performances and some which are a little too strident, hampered by the cartoonish rendering of the play in a sub-anime style that sacrifices any pretence of subtlety, significant chunks of text (including the final line, spoken as a eulogy to Annabella, which provides the play’s title) as well as half of the murders while sliding the remaining violence along a teetering seesaw of mock hysteria and joke shop horror.

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