Tenderness Outweighed By Tragedy In The Broken Heart

By Sam Smith Last edited 35 months ago
Tenderness Outweighed By Tragedy In The Broken Heart ★★★★☆ 4

Amy Morgan as Penthea and Owen Teale as Bassanes © Marc Brenner

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

The two most famous works of seventeenth century playwright John Ford are 'Tis Pity She’s A Whore, which came to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last autumn, and The Broken Heart, which now graces its coveted stage. Set in ancient times the story sees the Spartan general Ithocles marry his sister Penthea off to the great nobleman Bassanes, who keeps her as a prisoner, and the response to this of her true love Orgilus.

The play begins with this tragedy, and ends with even more as several deaths occur and the new Queen of Sparta, following the demise of her father, dies of a broken heart. It is made intriguing, however, by the fact that between these tragic start and end points, there are many moments of reconciliation and even opportunities for things to fall right.

The strength of Caroline Steinbeis’s production is to make us feel for every character in some way, so that it is hard to brand even the most brutal figure as simply evil. One could never start to justify the ‘misogyny’ that many of the men show, but it does seem to be the product of a society in which it would simply never have occurred to them to see women as equals. Indeed, while we are inclined to see the play as a reflection of a (thankfully) very distant era, in the seventeenth century Ford was probably being highly revolutionary in exposing prejudices that very few would ever have thought to question.

To its credit, the staging certainly has its laugh-out-loud moments, but many more are possessed of a dry humour where the joke derives from both the absurdity and horror of the situation. For example, at the mid-point Penthea is reconciled with Ithocles, but there is something profoundly ironic in him spilling his woes and asking for both her sympathy and help after all he has put her through. The production also makes excellent use of dance. At the start of the second half the women jive like automaton that have just emerged from a music box as if to emphasise how they are being entirely controlled, used and abused by the men. Similarly, the Queen hears of the numerous deaths while dancing, with her movements becoming more crazed and frenetic as each new report comes in.

From among the strong cast several performances stand out in particular. Luke Thompson as Ithocles feels like a dashing member of The Riot Club, capable of great smoothness and affability, but also immense callousness and cruelty. Owen Teale gives a perfectly measured performance as Bassanes as he tempers his absolute brutality towards Penthea with a few comic moments, but ultimately proves to be little more than an old man racked with pain and guilt at all he has done. Amy Morgan also presents many facets to the character of Penthea who reveals such strength in undergoing everything that she is forced to endure, but ultimately has the most tragic of demises.

Until 18 April at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London SE1 9DT with start times of 2.30pm and 7.30pm. For tickets (£10-£60) visit the Shakespeare’s Globe website.

Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 19 March 2015