Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican: Tis pity it’s a chore

Saturday 18th February 2012

We were looking forward to this production of Tis Pity She’s a Whore by Cheek by Jowl, having seen their outstanding Macbeth nearly two years ago.  It’s not exactly our favourite play; having seen Jude Law murder it (!) some time ago, we promised ourselves never again.  But the temptation was just too great.  Could this company ignite our enthusiasm for this play, whose popularity and longevity we find a mystery?

A quick glance at the plot synopses of John Ford’s plays confirms our suspicions that the man had ‘trust issues’ with women.  In this particular play, add inter-sibling incest to the mix of sex, violence, betrayal and revenge, and you have a play which seems to typify the 1630s.  Imagine our surprise as we filed into the Silk Street Theatre, to see a very modern set consisting of a teenage girl’s bedroom, replete with posters from the latest vampire movies, laptop, and en-suite bathroom.

The story revolves around incestuous twins Giovanni and Annabella.  They consummate their sexual relationship, and she becomes pregnant.  Fearing scandal and disgrace, she marries one of her many suitors.  And it goes downhill from there.

Can this story be updated?  Unfortunately, with the text as it is, there are too many practical problems to make this version believable.  Our first vision of Annabella is as a very modern teenager with access to the internet, and a pragmatic and unshockable maid.  Yet the couple, having forgotten to use contraception, fail to consider the morning-after pill or an abortion.  Even if we are to believe that she couldn’t go through with such a thing for personal reasons, the couple have too many options which have to be ignored.  They could even have fled to France, where apparently incest between consenting adults is legal – and they could have found that out from Wikipedia, as we did.  We might have been able to suspend disbelief if we had felt ourselves being carried away by their passion.  However, the clinical approach to the action engages our brains too much, constantly raising new questions, instead of allowing us to be moved, or even shocked.

What really surprised us, however, was the performance style.  The feature that made Cheek by Jowl’s previous production of Macbeth so compelling for us was the way that the text was allowed to come through because of an uncluttered, minimalistic approach to set, props and ‘business’.  This production on the other hand is crammed full of distractions which constantly seem to undermine and mangle the text.  The play begins with a dance led by Annabella in which the entire cast parade around her bedroom.  The tone remains self-conscious and aloof.  Moreover, there is a heavy emphasis on the way that society impinges on their lives, but because the play has been updated, this just seems like a blind alley.  

We can’t say we agree with the vision, but the execution was well done, with a tight ensemble of actors and some clever touches, such as the use of the en-suite bathroom as an all-purpose off-stage chamber of horrors.  The action was well-paced and fluid.  Lydia Wilson managed to make Annabella more than just a victim, and Laurence Spellman was entertaining as the amoral servant Vasquez.  Ultimately though, the play comes across as a Jacobean version of EastEnders.

We can’t help wondering why this update was so unsatisfactory, given that we have recently been raving about a version of Hamlet set in an asylum which doesn’t even attempt to make sense.  The likeliest explanation seems to be the play itself.  To quote Ian Rickson, who described the process of directing Hamlet and stretching the text to its limits, “The play (Hamlet) is a very strong thoroughbred – it really did respond to that handling”.  ‘Tis Pity she’s a whore’, on the other hand, is ready for the glue factory.

But if you think we are being a bit harsh, check out Diana Simmonds’ review of the same production when it visited the Sydney Festival.

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8 Responses to Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican: Tis pity it’s a chore

  1. John Branch says:

    I’ll be seeing that production (surely it’s much the same) tonight, in Brooklyn, New York. Looking forward to finding out whether and how it works for me.

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  2. John Branch says:

    Some thoughts, now that I’ve seen the production myself (it’s playing at Brooklyn Academy of Music, NYC) and re-read your review.

    One, I didn’t take the modern elements of the design as fixing the show in the current era, though it does look that way. It’s modernized in more ways than the Richard III I saw recently (which played at your Old Vic last year and used abstract modern costumes), but I read them the same way: these are basically still historical dramas, not of the present. I take the look mainly as part of the presentation style (which I don’t have time to explain).

    While I wouldn’t say the modern look is wrong, I will say that it doesn’t contribute much. It’s quickly apparent from those posters, etc., that Annabella is young, and that helps us accept her being impetuous after a bit of resistance. Not much more comes from it, I think.

    Two, I *really* agree with this: “This production … is crammed full of distractions which constantly seem to undermine and mangle the text.” My one-sentence review would say: brisk, clever, too busy.

    A comment about the position of women here: many of the Jacobean dramas, as you wrote, feature a “mix of sex, violence, betrayal and revenge.” I couldn’t say anything about John Ford’s particular views without some study to refresh my memory. The Duchess of Malfi, in the play named for her, is treated no better, and Vittoria in The White Devil is something of a pawn too (both these are by Webster). Does Ford have trust issues regarding women? No more than anyone else is my guess so far.

    You might appreciate a discussion of the play in a different production, given in Melbourne last year: http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com/2011/02/review-tis-pity-shes-whore.html. That review talks about the position of women in English society of the time.

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    • rageoffstage says:

      Hi John, thanks for your comments and for the link. Isn’t it interesting that there seems to have been such an outpouring of misogyny so soon after a woman had been on the throne for so long? Or perhaps that’s why…..

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  3. John Branch says:

    After various delays, the review I wrote of ‘Tis Pity as it played at BAM has finally been posted. Find it at http://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/cogito-john-branch-9/. (It went up about a day ago, but it’s taking me some time to catch up on announcing it.)

    Again, thanks for your thoughts here on the presentation at the Barbican.

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