A Night Of Dark And Twisted Delight: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Photo by Manuel Harlan

The red bed makes it clear — if it wasn’t clear from the title — that sex is centre-stage in this superlative production of John Ford’s 17th-century shocker ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. The bed is the crucible for a succession of ever-darkening sequences: lechery, incest, murder and dismemberment — becoming half pleasure palace, half sacrificial altar.

Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod gleefully choreograph the dizzying twists of the story around this bed with barely a pause for breath. Every second fizzes with energy and invention, coming together to form a truly mesmerising, white-hot experience.

Over-achieving theatre company Cheek By Jowl brings this terrific show back to London after several years on the road, so now it is polished to perfection, an object lesson in how to make beautiful, dangerous and impeccably-judged drama. Seriously, every aspiring theatre director should see this production to learn just how much can be achieved through the artful use of movement, music and lighting. There’s not much money spent, yet there are so many good bits: a gyrating gigolo hit-man, a wedding scene in a cupboard and dance sequences that morph into stunning tableaux inspired by Catholic pageantry and Baroque Rococo sculpture. And then, just when you’re catching up with the sturm und drang, a sudden silence will push an emotional scene into extreme close-up, the actors delivering a deft sucker-punch which proves there really is a beating bloody heart underneath all the surface sparkle.

There is, at times, a suspicion that Ford’s story might be a bit half-cocked. It’s basically a tangle of illicit love affairs snagged around the central axis of Anabella (Eve Ponsonby), a young girl who is due to be married off despite the fact that she’s shagging her older brother Giovanni (Orlando James). But you hardly have time to pick apart the threads to work out what’s really what. The runaway train is already dragging you off.

Every performance is great with each actor given a moment to grand-stand, but special mention has to go to Ruth Everett as Hippolita. In three or four brief scenes she elevates counter-intuitive line-reading to an art-form and creates one of the most compelling miniature psychodramas we’ve seen on the stage. This is electrifying theatre. Get thee to the Barbican now.

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore plays at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre until 26 April 2014. Tickets £21-£26 + booking fee. Londonist saw the play on a complimentary ticket.

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