’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Barbican, 12 April 2014
A bedroom with dark red walls; a bed with red sheets and red duvet cover; television and film posters for works such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries: into this blood-themed world stepped a young woman who lounged on her bed and did normal stuff like play CDs and check her laptop.
As if to reinforce the idea that this Cheek By Jowl production was going to be giving John Ford’s Caroline era play a thoroughly modern makeover, the performance began with a dance routine set to a pumping soundtrack.
The modernity of the setting, the dancing and the apparent ordinariness of the young woman were starkly at odds with the archaic language of the play’s title. Only that title and the dark red colour scheme suggested the murky depths to which the story would descend.
Everything that happened to Annabella would happen in this room, which was firmly established as a normal young woman’s bedroom.
The first scene, in which the Friar (Raphael Sowole) castigated Giovanni (Orlando James) for “the leprosy of lust that rots thy soul” had Giovanni play with Annabella (Eve Ponsonby) on her bed, half attending to the Friar while teasing his sister. The fun the siblings were having created sympathy for them within the world of the play, to the extent that the Friar looked like a mardy spoilsport. In the early scenes of the play Giovanni was always in close proximity to Annabella, which underscored his connection to her.
Many of the play’s subplots and minor characters were expunged to focus attention on the tragic trajectory of the doomed couple.
The bed served as the “above” from which Annabella and Puttana (Nicola Sanderson) observed Giovanni, who instead of wandering the stage below a balcony, here lay reading a book at the side of the bed (1.2). This strange staging made perfect sense if the bed was understood to represent Annabella’s territory on which she could relax, play with her brother, and from which she could observe events in the outside world.
It was significant therefore that the first really sinister turn of events began when Giovanni was with Annabella at the dressing table set far away from her bed, set right at the edge of the performance space stage right. It was here that playfulness was replaced by Giovanni’s unhealthy admiration of his sister’s beauty: she looked at herself in the mirror and her brother described his reaction to her beauty, putting his arms around her to make the point obvious.
When he finally declared his incestuous love for her, he did so offering her a dagger to cut out his heart: “there shalt thou behold a heart in which is writ the truth I speak”.
Annabella looked scared both of the dagger and of her brother. The violent impetuosity of his gesture was an intimidating act of force that made Annabella’s subsequent acquiescence appear the possible result of duress.
Both siblings stripped and made out on her bed and a Chorus of other actors stood in the shadows nearby whispering ominously.
The couple even remained together on the floor during 1.3 while above them their father Florio (David Collings) spoke with Donado (Ryan Ellsworth), the uncle of a suitor for Annabella’s hand.
At the start of act two, Giovanni left Annabella for the first time since the start of the performance.
Puttana examined Annabella as she remarked “what a paradise of joy you have passed under” and fetched a pregnancy test, which would reveal that Annabella was expecting.
Hippolita’s (Ruth Everett) hyperdramatic accusations that Soranzo had wronged her turned to comedy when she began to cry like a child and was comforted by Soranzo’s servant Vasquez (Will Alexander) (2.2).
Vasquez picked her up and cradled her as she wailed. He placed her on the bed and gently massaged her back. Her cries of despair gradually and comically turned into moans of pleasure as she began to enjoy the experience. She deftly positioned herself on top of Vasquez and proceeded to seduce him, eventually promising to marry him if he served her faithfully.
Giovanni used specious reasoning to justify his relationship with Annabella to the Friar (2.5). Its obvious falsity made him a morally compromised figure. But when Annabella brushed off suitor Soranzo’s (Maximilien Seweryn) advances (3.2), with Giovanni watching from the side, it was difficult not to support Annabella’s decision and by implication her involvement with her sibling.
Annabella fell sick and her maid Puttana told Giovanni that she was pregnant (3.3). A Doctor (Peter Moreton) visited and examined her water, while Florio hastened to marry her to Soranzo (3.4), the betrothal going ahead after the Friar had chastened Annabella with visions of divine punishment (3.6).
Meanwhile, Hippolita ordered Vasquez to kill Soranzo and dressed for the wedding banquet (3.8).
At the wedding reception Hippolita wore a face mask, and sang for the guests in a side room behind the main stage, before returning to the main stage (4.1). She asked Vasquez for wine, which he supplied. But he denied the same wine to Soranzo, explaining that he had poisoned the wine to kill Hippolita, despite her intention to marry him. Hippolita proceeded to die with all the noise and spectacle of her boisterous character.
The following scene 4.2 was cut so that 4.1 merged seamlessly with 4.3, which began with Soranzo’s denouncement “Famous whore”. At first these words seemed to be directed at Hippolita, which in view of her failed plot to kill him would seem reasonable. But then Soranzo turned his anger on Annabella. Somehow he had found out about her pregnancy and things were about to turn gruesome.
Soranzo groped at Annabella’s “corrupted, bastard-bearing womb” and then tried to abort the baby by dragging her off into the bathroom and procuring a bent coat hanger to use as a crude surgical instrument. As both were obscured from sight, the only indication of what was happening was Annabella’s screams. Yet again, Annabella’s defence of herself and by implication Giovanni’s incestuous fathering of her child, appeared reasonable compared with Soranzo’s callous desire to kill the unborn child.
Vasquez’s moderating influence made Soranzo calm down and forgive her. But the two men still did not know who the father of the child was. But an opportunity immediately presented itself.
Vasquez got to work on Puttana as she tidied up Annabella’s clothes. He seduced her, tempted her with the services of a male stripper who stood in for the text’s banditti. His mercenary treatment of Puttana showed Vasquez to be someone who was both exploited by others and an exploiter in his own right.
There was a party of sorts with the stripper. The three sang and danced on the bed, all of which was intended to get Puttana to divulge the paternity of Annabella’s child. Puttana got into the swing of things and spilt the beans, half-singing the answer to the key question, revealing that her mistress had been made pregnant “’Twas even no worse than her own brother.” The others recoiled, while she comically carried on dancing. Retribution was swift: the stripper cut out Puttana’s tongue and dragged her off to the bathroom, yet again the location of bloody horror, in order to blind her.
The focus returned to Annabella at the start of 5.1. She sat forlorn at the foot of her bed and bid “pleasures farewell…” not in soliloquy, but with the rest of the cast surrounding her at a distance. The Friar was delighted to hear her repent her relationship with Giovanni.
Soranzo was now in a celebratory mood and organised a birthday bash, sending Vasquez to invite Giovanni (5.2). Vasquez found a still unrepentant Giovanni just after he had heard from Annabella that their secret had been discovered. He was very keen to attend (5.3).
Once at the party, Giovanni sought out Annabella in her bedroom (5.5). They kissed passionately on her bed, but lust turned to violence as Giovanni snapped her neck and carried her away. Instead of the text’s lingering death from a stabbing, with an opportunity to say her farewells, she went out like a light.
The performance entered its final scene with the guests gathered for the party (5.6). The mingling revellers initially obscured Giovanni, but they suddenly parted to reveal him naked from the waist up with his back to the audience. He turned round so that we could see that he was covered in blood and clutching in his hands the heart that he had cut out.
He climbed onto the bed and in a dimly and ominously lit tableau acted out how he had “enjoyed sweet Annabella’s sheets”. The door of the bathroom had been left open and its walls were blood-splattered. There was no further killing, sometimes these repetitive revenge killings can come across as comic in performance, so the focus of the final moments was fixed on Giovanni as Annabella appeared through a rear door, stood behind her wretched brother and reached out to him.
The play was remarkable for the way in which it generated sympathy for at least one of the participants in an incestuous relationship.
But women in the play, like Hippolita and Puttana, were shown to be the victims of deception. With Giovanni characterised as impetuous, self-centred and ultimately callous and murderous, it was possible to see Annabella as a similar dupe, even to the point of not fully knowing herself.
Giovanni’s final act put paid to the lie of their romance: murdering Annabella proved that he did not love her.