‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: John Ford

'Tis Pity She's a Whore: John Ford

★★★½

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, October-December 2014)

Say what you like about Baroque operas (or, indeed, George R.R. Martin), but nobody does dysfunctional families quite like the Jacobeans. The Globe’s winter season opens with John Ford’s play, written around 1630, which takes place in 17th-century Parma. Here the young scholar Giovanni is in torment. He desires his sister, the beautiful Annabella, but despite the advice of his former tutor, the Friar, he sees no way to cure his illicit passion. Annabella herself is being courted by three suitors: the swaggering Roman soldier Grimaldi; the nobleman Bergetto, who has the promise of a vast inheritance but not a brain in his head; and the handsome gentleman Soranzo, whose courteous manner masks a darker temper.

Yet not one of these men pleases Annabella. When her beloved brother comes to her in an emotional tumult and spills out his confession of love, she’s disturbed: first because she knows she should be disturbed, and then because his words find an answering echo in her own heart. They become lovers in secret, but their idyll can’t last for long. In the streets of Parma, the rivalry between Annabella’s suitors flashes into open violence. It’s no fault of hers: it’s all down to Soranzo’s jilted lover Hippolita, who has come to claim her dues from him, with her estranged and disguised husband hot on her heels, eager for revenge.

As the cogs and wheels of vengeance creak into motion around them, Annabella discovers that she is pregnant and the lovers realise she must be married off to hide their shame. Soranzo is the lucky man. At first he’s delighted to finally have his heart’s desire; but when he discovers that his new wife is already with child, he’s consumed by fury and wounded pride. His servant Vasques, his faithful dark shadow, takes it upon himself to find out Annabella’s secret. But they have reckoned without Giovanni’s own despair: deprived of his sister and his lover, he is pushed ever closer to the brink of madness and begins to plan a bloody campaign of his own.

Revenge is all the ambition I aspire;
To that I’ll climb or fall: my blood’s on fire.

(Soranzo, Act V, Scene 2)

'Tis Pity She's a Whore: John Ford

Annabella (Fiona Button) and Soranzo (Stefano Braschi) © Simon Kane

I hadn’t seen one of Ford’s plays before, and ‘Tis Pity is an interesting beast. It has much in common with The Duchess of Malfi: illicit love, Italian debauchery, corrupt churchmen and a tendency to flood the stage with blood; but it’s funnier and less extreme than Webster’s masterpiece. There’s no mental torture, gory dumbshows or dances of madmen here, and there also aren’t any overly imaginative forms of death (poisoned books, beavers, gloves etc.). Mind you, there are more than enough stabbings to make up for it, and there’s one particularly grisly moment – spoilers ahead, obviously – when Giovanni surges into the final scene drenched in blood with what looked (from my seat in the balcony) like a very real heart impaled on his dagger. Nice.

And then of course there’s the xenophobic theme at the heart of virtually every Jacobean tragedy: basically, that you can’t trust the Italians or Spanish as far as you can throw them. (Sorry guys.) The murderous Vasques is a Spaniard; and the highest praise he can find for his master Soranzo, as he commits himself to vengeance, is an admiring tribute from one untrustworthy nation to another: ‘Now,’ he says approvingly, ‘you begin to turn Italian!‘ (Act V, Scene 4). And yet Ford doesn’t take the simple route of mere sensationalism: it’s not just a case of ‘Incest! Murder! Stabbings! Blood everywhere!’ It’s slightly more subtle than that, because he makes Giovanni and Annabella surprisingly sympathetic. Their confessions of love for one another are endearingly halting and awkward: they are star-crossed lovers, rather than monsters. Their love is given some beautiful poetry: Giovanni sounds like any other infatuated Renaissance youth when, in the aftermath of their first kiss, he swears breathlessly that ‘I would not change this minute for Elysium‘ (Act I, Scene 2).

'Tis Pity She's a Whore: John Ford

Giovanni (Max Bennett) and Annabella (Fiona Button)

The criticism first: I was underwhelmed by the costumes. The Globe has a smashing costume department and I couldn’t help feeling it was a bit of a cop-out to have the cast wearing pseudo-Jacobean outfits assembled from modern dress. The men wore doublets with modern shirts underneath; Annabella was in a frothy strapless gown; Giovanni seemed to be wearing sneakers; and everything was topped off with wheel ruffs. It looked like something you’d see in a creative and brilliant student production, not in a theatre which surely has cupboards overflowing with 17th-century finery. I’ve read that the director wanted something a bit more contemporary, but in that case why not just go the whole hog and have it in modern dress? Yes, I’m grumbling, but I felt a bit disappointed that they didn’t go to town a tiny bit more. However… A play’s success rests (mainly) not on the costumes but on the cast and, as ever, the Globe turned out a fantastic bunch of actors. There were two familiar faces there, neither of whom I recognised at first, but it can’t be coincidence that I picked them both out as among my favourites.

One was James Garnon, whom I’ve previously seen in The Duchess of MalfiMuch Ado and Richard III. Here he took on the dual role of Bergetto and the Cardinal, and the former was a stroke of comic genius. Wide-eyed, good-natured and probably slightly inbred, this Bergetto was the classic aristocratic English twit, and Garnon was having a ball with him. He’s great to watch and he also handles the language remarkably easily. It’s true: much of his dialogue as Bergetto was in prose, but he still managed to make 17th-century English sound fresh and conversational. The other familiar face was Philip Cumbus, whom I last saw as a gauche but endearing Claudio in Much Ado. Here he played Vasques with a good deal of scheming relish, making his entrance in the second scene with a very commendable piece of double-handed swordplay.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore: John Ford

Annabella (Fiona Button) and Soranzo (Stefano Braschi) at their wedding © Simon Kane

Other verbal bouquets go to Morag Siller, for her garrulous, chatty and whip-smart nurse Putana and to Michael Gould for a very sombre turn as Giovanni’s tutor the Friar. He looked great in the role and was chilling in the scene where he conjures up the torments of Hell to frighten Annabella into marriage. The incestuous siblings themselves were played by Fiona Button and Max Bennett. Button gave Annabella an attractive inner steel and intelligence, and managed to convey the gradual disintegration of this young woman’s confidence as the full horror of her position creeps over her. Bennett was an earnest Giovanni: slightly arrogant and childishly possessive, he seemed to lack his sister’s quick understanding, and his final descent into madness culminated in a terrifying rampage that was all the more shocking because it was so illogical.

It’s certainly a very promising opening to the season and made for a rather full-blooded Saturday evening: incest, murder, destruction and a pile of corpses, followed by the cast’s traditional merry dance to round off the performance. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, despite my little gripe about the costumes, and I genuinely think the Sam Wanamaker can be recommended regardless of production or cast. It’s always such a magical experience: the painted ceiling; soft candlelight from chandeliers and sconces; live music from the gallery; the intimacy of the space… it’s just an unparalleled delight. With only a couple of hundred seats clustered tight around the stage, you can hear every word, every breath; the acoustics are splendid. I can’t even begin to imagine how fabulous it’s going to be to hear arias sung in that space: Farinelli and Ormindo will be unbelievable.

8 thoughts on “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore: John Ford

  1. Janet says:

    My daughter and I have tickets for L'Ormindo on 27th Feb. Im looking forward to it even more after your final sentence, and it will be my first visit to the playhouse!

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    A friend of mine went last year, Janet, and has been telling me repeatedly how wonderful it is. I can't wait, especially because I watched another of Cavalli's operas on DVD recently (Elena) and if Ormindo is anything like that it promises to be a real treat. There will be much gushing afterwards, to be sure. 😉

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    I thought I was very unsalacious here, actually. I could have mentioned that Act 2 opens with the lovers in flagrante in bed, which I didn't. Or I could have observed that poor Fiona Button must get very cold. Which I also didn't. Or I could have noted that those sitting on the right hand side of the Lower Gallery probably get to see rather more of Max Bennett than they'd been expecting. But I didn't say that either. All in all, I thought I was quite remarkably restrained.

    But apparently not… 😉

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