Doomed Love and Darkness: ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

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Annabella (Fiona Button) has an intimate moment with her brother Giovanni (Max Bennett). Photo courtesy of Alastair Muir.

John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore is a brutal play, featuring incest, poisoning, corrupt Cardinals, gallows humour, betrayal, and a heart impaled on a knife. But it is also an eloquent and moving exploration of a doomed love affair amidst societal condemnation and the threat of damnation. It is a play full of darkness, both literal and metaphorical: liaisons and mistaken murders take place in the pitch blackness of unlit streets at night, and the lovers are repeatedly threatened with the hellish darkness that awaits them if they fail to repent of their love. In the candle-lit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe, the audience is immersed in the shadowed world of the play: audience members and actors alike can be seen by the flickering illumination of the beeswax candles that rise and fall to reveal and hide the tragic action.

At one of the darkest points of the play, the candles are extinguished and the entire theatre is plunged into darkness, so that when the actors call for torches, the audience are likewise straining to see. The shared light and the almost claustrophobic atmosphere of the theatre, with the tiered audience packed tightly around the stage space, makes the tragedy feel uncomfortably near; the audience can escape neither the incest nor its bloody aftermath. The multi-sensory beauty of the Sam Wanamaker, will its glowing oak and honey scents, only serves to emphasise the bleakness of the world evoked in it.

The Sam Wanamaker’s opening season last year began with Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, a similarly murky Jacobean tragedy that also features a disconcertingly intense sibling relationship that teeters on the edge of incest, in the Duke Ferdinand’s determined regulation of his sister’s sexual behaviour. Ferdinand’s cruelty, erratic behaviour, and gradual descent into lycanthropic madness each serve to alienate the audience; Ferdinand’s incestuous desire is just one of his many unsavoury attributes. What is striking about ’Tis Pity, in contrast, is its sympathetic portrayal of sibling incest – in witnessing the consensual and passionate love affair between Giovanni and Annabella, from its troubled beginnings to its violent denouement, the audience becomes caught up in the lovers’ idealised vision of a shared love that will bind them together with ‘one heart’ and a ‘double soul’.

In “Baits of Sin”, one of the many and comprehensive production programme notes, Shakespeare’s Globe post-doctoral fellow Will Tosh observes that, “as far as 17th-century men and women were concerned, all human beings – fallen creatures marked with original sin – contained within them the capacity for an impressive variety of perversion… Giovanni and Annabella are not remarkable in their incestuous feelings for each other; they are simply unfortunately weak-willed in failing to keep their impulses clamped down” (p.26). Yet although this moral is repeatedly drawn in ’Tis Pity, Ford provides us with a plethora of different ways of viewing Giovanni and Annabella’s relationship, from the God-fearing condemnation of the Friar and the shocked disgust of the servant Vasques, to the amoral approach of Annabella’s attendant Putana, who tells her, “if a young wench feel the fit upon her, let her take any body, father or brother”. Amidst these opposing views, which the audience is invited to laugh at or to share, the play consistently returns to the beliefs of the lovers themselves.

Longhurst’s staging of the lovers’ meetings reinforces our sympathy for them: a four-poster bed is wheeled onstage, and we see Giovanni and Annabella disentangle themselves beneath the sheets and emerge laughing and breathless. The booking information warns that this production “contains nudity and scenes of a sexual nature”, yet the abiding impression is not of eroticism, but of playfulness: the lovers can laugh together and talk together, and are comfortable in their shared nudity. In showing us the lovers naked in Annabella’s bedchamber, Longhurst emphasises not only their erotic bond, but also their intimacy and affection.

The critically-acclaimed 2011/12 Cheek By Jowl production of ’Tis Pity, which recently returned to the Barbican for a second run, staged the entirety of the action in Annabella’s bedchamber. The production emphasised Annabella’s immaturity and inexperience, and framed her love for her brother as a teenage infatuation; her bedroom was strewn with signifiers of youth culture, with a poster for True Blood on the wall and a red ghetto blaster on her bedside table. Annabella’s refusal of her suitors was played as childish petulance – Juliet-like, she seemed to stand on the brink of sexual maturity, and her incest with Giovanni bordered to abuse. Many scenes were played against the grain of the text: any scene with a sexual subtext was staged as explicitly erotic, so that scenes of interrogation became coke-fuelled orgies, and a husband’s condemnation of his adulterous wife was played as a sexual fantasy. The result was a dynamic and compelling production, which illuminated many of the themes and anxieties of the play, but in so doing, discarded many of the resonances of the original text.

Michael Longhurst’s production takes the opposite approach: in creating a faithful and accurate staging of the play, he transports the audience to the corrupt and dangerous world of the play. Actors are dressed in “Jacobethan”-style modern dress, creating a sense of “period” without appearing so very different from the watching audience, and musicians on the upper stage create music that underpins the mood of each scene without distracting from the action. Rather than imposing a sexual dynamic on every scene, Longhurst enables a variety of emotions to emerge, as dictated by the performances of the excellent cast, from the pathos of Noma Dumezweni’s compelling widow Hippolita, to the humour of James Garnon’s foolish suitor, Bergetto.

The lovers in this production are adults, making bad and tragic choices that stem not from their inexperience, but from their doomed love. Fiona Button’s Annabella is passionate and articulate: her refusal of her suitors is playful and knowing; her repentance is genuine; and her love for her brother is whole-hearted and overwhelming. As Giovanni (Max Bennett) unravels, transforming from ardent lover into a much darker figure, Annabella emerges as by far the most sympathetic character, and her appeal makes the moral drawn in the title of the play seem an ironic comment on the limitations of the other characters’ condemnation. Yet the strength of this production is that it doesn’t allow a single view to dominate: Michael Gould’s Friar, desperately fighting to save two souls from hell, makes it impossible for us to accept Giovanni’s dismissal of the dangers of incest.

The Sam Wanamaker is the perfect venue for this multifaceted production. Longhurst makes use of every possible playing space, from the onstage discovery space and upper gallery to the pit and the audience galleries, in which actors frequently appear to sing plainsong in scene changes. In diminishing the boundaries between on- and off-stage, this production extends the world of the play into the world of the audience. It also creates moments of surprise: almost caught in bed with her brother, Annabella throws an item of clothing to an audience member to hide it from her father, whilst in the play’s comic sub-plot, Bergetto and his servant Poggio (Dean Nolan) convert the spaces of the theatre into their playground. I witnessed at least one moment of unscripted humour, when Garnon and Nolan overbalanced and landed on an audience member in the lower gallery – an occurrence that, rather than shattering the play’s illusion, only made the play world and the realities of the theatre seem more closely entwined.

The production is not flawless: there are moments that jar slightly, such as the various points when a character enters and stands thoughtfully – so that another character may observe them and point them out – before leaving again, a theatrical convention which is repeatedly used in the play, but is exposed as unconvincing in the intimate spaces of the Sam Wanamaker. The actors’ energy can also occasionally seem misplaced, such as when Button’s Annabella, pregnant and violently abused by her husband, comfortably leaps and runs across the stage space, or when a character who has recently lost her lover laughs at an onstage entertainment. But these are tiny quibbles – this is an involving, moving, superbly acted and beautifully realised production.

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore continues at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until Sunday December 7.

Emma Whipday

About Emma Whipday

Emma is a PhD Candidate in English at UCL, researching violent homes in Shakespeare's tragedies. She studied at Oxford as an undergraduate, where she was deputy editor of The Isis. Emma has written for the Royal Opera House Digital Guide to the Winter's Tale, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and the Sunday Times Culture Magazine. She is the Associate Writer for theatre company Reverend Productions.

Emma is a PhD Candidate in English at UCL, researching violent homes in Shakespeare's tragedies. She studied at Oxford as an undergraduate, where she was deputy editor of The Isis. Emma has written for the Royal Opera House Digital Guide to the Winter's Tale, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and the Sunday Times Culture Magazine. She is the Associate Writer for theatre company Reverend Productions.

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