Review: Tis Pity She’s a Whore, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe

Fiona Button as Annabella, Max Bennett as Giovanni. Photo Simon Kane

Fiona Button as Annabella, Max Bennett as Giovanni. Photo Simon Kane

Something happens twenty minutes into John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s a Whore, as performed at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse. Up until that point, I knew I was watching a hugely engaging production of a very fine play. Fluid, clear, intelligent. But at the beginning of the second act, in the scene where Giovanni and Annabella are in bed together, having made love for the first time, things are revealed for what they are. It’s not that the production changes gear, it is the audience catching up. The intense intimacy of falling in love ripples from stage to audience, tender, delicate, exposed to light – like camera film. Should we be here? Who is watching whom? And who is guilty of forbidden acts?

And then you get it. This production of Tis Pity She’s a Whore is going to be thrillingly hot. Not only in a high-minded way, or even in a carnal way – although both these are true – but forbidden, dangerous. The candlelight is fire and danger as much as it is shadows and trembling beauty. This is the achievement of Michael Longhurst’s production: without rewriting the play, he welds together themes of forbidden love with this cradle of a space, the breathing-fire quality of the text with feverish, sharp action. The result brims with exquisite life (and therefore death).

After that, everything falls into place and gains huge momentum. Max Bennett and Fiona Button, Giovanni and Annabella, brother and sister and lovers, fit perfectly and tenderly together, hands blindly seeking, breaths synching. It’s physics as much as anything else, bodies orbiting each other. Nature versus nature, sibling relationship versus cosmic powers. She is intelligent, vibrant and trapped in a position far below her fearless spirit. He is flushed with love and a sense of invincibility, she is his power quite literally. She understands their predicament more keenly than he does. His late realisation is seismic, it overwhelms his mind.

Fiona Button as Annabella. Photo Simon Kane

Fiona Button as Annabella. Photo Simon Kane

This is an ensemble company and, as with the leads, the acting soars in the actors working together. James Garnon puts his matchless kinship with an audience in good use with a Bergetto who is optimistically and uproariously funny, instantly engaging and ultimately moving. When he comes back as the Cardinal, the chill of the transformation seeps into the play. Sam Cox as his wealthy uncle Donaldo adds a tender exasperation in his dealings with his nephew, nicely colouring the harder aspects of the character. Noma Dumezweni as Hippolita is commanding and sizzling sexy (which makes a mockery of Soranzo’s treatment of her). Philip Cumbus is disturbingly appealing as stony-hearted Vasques, matching his venomous slithering with uncompromising efficiency. Michael Gould as the Friar communicates silent rage and a delicate kind of desperation for things to come.

The candlelight is used in subtle inventive ways: During the scene when the Friar talks Annabella into repenting and marrying Soranzo, the candles are put out one by one. The stage gets darker and darker and the movement of women extinguishing the candles manipulates the shadows. The images of hell conjured by the Friar are crawling out. At other moments, complete darkness is used. Equally and as importantly, the lighting by candles is unobtrusive. It doesn’t get in the way and you stop noticing after a while.

The sexual politics embedded in the story are depressingly relatable today. The carnage of the last scene – and there is real carnage – is not nearly as disturbing as domestic violence earlier in the play. Annabella’s marriage is arranged in business-like terms and her suitors compete for ranking and not her hand. The Cardinal, in the last line of the play, says:

“Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store,
Who could not say, Tis Pity She’s a Whore?”

It’s a testament of my personal involvement with the play that I felt a hot white rage at his last line. The powers of corruption survive the story, Giovanni’s hope that people might understand is crushed. Until, that is, the playwright makes a case for it.

Curtain Call Watch: you wouldn’t think it, but there is a jig at the curtain call. Paradoxically it works, starting with a harder dance, reminiscent of haka, and turning into something softer and more joyous. It’s like a decompression chamber, to get us out to the street. I know I needed it.

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