Wondrous bloodthirsty drama with a modern edge
THE publicity for Siren Productions' version of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (in this dual-medium version of film and stage it's The Making of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore) describes it as "darkly comic".
I am getting very tired of having so many plays, modern and classic, described this way, as though Irish producers didn't trust audiences to be able to take a bit of unadulterated tragedy. There's nothing funny about this post-Jacobean blood-fest, even though director Selina Cartmell has actually cut out several of the more gory events and the characters who perpetrate them in the original. But if you go along expecting a giggle, you're going to be disappointed.
On the other hand, if you go along and do giggle, there's probably something seriously wrong with your psyche.
Take a studious but indulged young man who rejects his nice family's attempts to marry him off suitably. The reason? He's in lust with his beautiful teenage sister, a lust she's happy to reciprocate when he tells her of it.
Except this is around the year 1625, when losing your virginity outside marriage was close to being a capital crime, and women in any case were regarded as goods to be traded. And spoiled goods were worthless. Throw in a few honourable if equally lustful suitors, one of whom has spurned a feisty type who has induced her husband to go on a dangerous journey in the hope of his death so she may marry the object of her desires, and you have a right Venetian imbroglio being stirred malevolently by the fathers of the Church with (as usual) an eye to the main chance.
That's the main thrust of the plot. Add in the inevitable pregnancy for the beautiful Annabella, a hasty marriage, an indulgent governess with a loose sense of morality, plenty of knives, a few pots of poison, and the triumph of insane revenge; and you have a stunning piece of blood-thirsty horror, embellished with all the glory of 17th century verse. And on top of it, you have the imaginative genius of Selina Cartmell who has decided on a process of detachment: this is "the making" of a production of Ford's original play. We have a modern film crew making a movie of it, with the older generation of characters (Annabella's father, a devious friar, and a grasping Cardinal) dominating the giant screens, along with the idiotically "suitable" suitor, who is portrayed with his servant as a Laurel and Hardy duo, while the helpless and all too human pawns play out the horror in reality beneath them.
The production, despite its rich banquet of blood and guts, has got rid of a few of the original delights such as the gouging out of the governess's eyes, followed by her burning alive on the orders of the Cardinal, and a double-twist poisoning of the lustful Hippolita who has tried to get rid of her husband only to have him unveil himself as well and truly alive at the end, presiding over her hideous death.
But the blood-thirsty richness is all there, encompassed in a series of spectacularly effective performances led by Louis Lovett as the incestuous and murdering Giovanni, and Kate Stanley Brennan as breathtakingly beautiful Annabella. Cathy Belton is the sinuous Hippolita, Phelim Drew is the hapless and duped Soranzo and Barbara Brennan is the governess Putana. On film we have Tom Hickey sickeningly sneering as the Friar, Lorcan Cranitch as Annabella's doting father, and John Kavanagh supremely hideous as the Cardinal who suitably and ravenously wins all at the expense of numerous tragic lives and deaths. And Simon Delaney and Paul Reid are also on film, putting in sterling work as Bergetto, Annabella's "legitimate" intended and his servant/ foil Poggio.
Sabine Dargent is responsible for the set, with costumes by Gaby Rooney, lit by Sinead McKenna, and with a subtle score by Conor Linehan.
Cartmell has "played" with this classic to good effect: it remains a wondrous piece of theatre, but given a contemporary edge that serves to highlight all the bloody complacency of Jacobean drama.