CentralDramaReview

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore – Crescent Theatre, Birmingham

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: John Ford

Director: Nathalie Baźan

For all the sophistication of the predominantly youthful audience tonight, with the near-instantaneous smart-phone access to every depravity and iniquity humankind can both enjoy and inflict, often simultaneously, upon their fellow man, woman, child and beast, their encounter with Giovanni and Annabella’s gratuitous incest gave rise to a palpable intake of breath. Perhaps the last of the ancient archetypal societal taboos seemingly remains firmly entrenched.

Ford’s play has been roundly criticised for not presenting an unambiguous condemnation of its still shocking subject matter, though not so much the arbitrary condemnation of Putana, Annabella’s maid and confidante to be burned at stake, having previously had her eyes gouged out, whilst Vasquez gets off relatively lightly with banishment. The last accusation of ‘witchcraft’ burning came a century later in Scotland, no skimping with a cheapskate stake – they used a tar barrel to incinerate a confused elderly lady.

Of Nathalie Baźan’s directorial élan The Reviews Hub commented on her adaptation of Euripides’, arguably the darkest of all Greek tragedies, Hecuba, some two years ago thus – ‘…this is the already, ridiculously high-bar set by Nathalie Bazán and her troupers’.It appears, by tonight’s production, she’s more than content to delve ever deeper into the bile-soaked bowels of human hell. Only she can, with wry synchronicity and a touch of Machiavellian panache, pull off a showcase night’s gig next door to the Crescent’s Main House production of Snow White. It’s what they would have wanted.

She cites her father’s introducing her to the Tarantino opus at the age of seven. (Wouldn’t actually put that in print, Nathalie!) Said enfant terriblé’s tell-tale stylistic visual motifs (Tarantino’s, not her dad’s) are scattered across the back-screen projections with kitsch cowboy western shadow block fonts and lonely, off-the-main highway, neon-lit motel/diners. A nod to Hopper, perhaps?

Niggles first then: the screen projections and the underscore of subliminal suggestive, iconic soundtracks, feel sometimes laboured. The gore-fest dénouement set against hyenas’ kill splendour and pecking seagulls like so. The slo-mo flower petals opening out as the siblings copulate rather passé? Or maybe just a tap on the shoulder of Tarantino irony. The unavoidable cooling fan (if it was so) of the projector sometimes becomes annoying, perhaps even intrusive air-con, compromising the more subtle dialogue. The gangly Giovanni’s off-Thrust Stage asides occasionally lack clarity set against the compromising acoustics.

Subtle?Revenge Tragedy? Whatever were they thinking of? Yet again, it is counter-intuitively reassuring that some of the younger audience could barely stifle a shocking gasp when there, live on stage, was the prospect of a teenage brother and sister’s incest laid bare – as indeed as Annabella was about to be.

Ford’s opening scene gets straight to the matter. Giovanni (Christopher Cook) is in heated conversation with his mentor and confessor (The) Friar. Joey Young’s take on the Holy Man has him as an oleaginous, hyper-active, Bible-thumping God-botherer whose tipple of choice might be holy water or wholly brandy.

Understandable really when Giovanni’s arguing, and deceitfully quite convincingly, for his part (and one part in particular) that, given both he and his exceptionally attractive sister, the waif-like Annabella (Mia Athena Joyce) were once nestled in the same mother’s womb, what can be wrong with them sharing the same bed? QED Holy Man: put that in your thurible and smoke it. Mia Athena Joyce’s Annabella’s persona undergoes a wretched corruption as her incestuous pregnancy becomes all too evident. A nice conceit using binge-eating crisp packets to conceal her wracking bouts of sickness. Her rejection of suitor, Soranzo (Ross Gilby, muscles made from girders, prone to onanism) is a study in heroin-chic, rock chick degeneracy, understandably, as a potential dowry-bride she might be considered ‘damaged goods. It’s not going to end well.

Father of the siblings, Florio, sees Alexander Wolverson as a preening dandy, full of himself, bandying about courting potential sons-in-law. Honestly! Those kids will be the death of him. Of all the Machiavellian characters Webster has bequeathed us, Putana, Annabella’s maid, is a corker and hasn’t Director, Baźan, let Chloe Delpino, foaming-mouthed, off a pretty strong leash. She’s a total scheming hussy. A sort of ketamine-fueled Puck waving a crack pipe for a magic wand. Her name is derived from Whore, just to lend some context, as it were. Superb.

Inevitably, it all ends in tears and signature Websterian bloodshed akin to a Francis Bacon still-life (death) study of a butcher’s dustbin. Notwithstanding the aforementioned names-checked, this ensemble cast is utterly on top of its brief: confident, inventive, convincing. The delivery is concise, just within the boundaries of tripping o’er themselves in the heat of the moment. There’s more commitment in these kids’ eyes than Hannibal Lecter at a Master Chef meat-pie face-off.

The title itself, like Webster’s White Devil, is redolent with mischievous moral ambiguity and internal contradiction. The casual informality of ’Tis, as if a throwaway qualification juxtaposed against a most heinous insult – albeit true.

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore has the insinuating ambience of a forty years Miners’ Strike anniversary adult panto staged by Socialist Worker vilifying the Iron Lady from Grantham. It’s what Ford would have wanted. Lying Lips Theatre company’s conceit is predicated on a short-fused, nitro-glycerine time bomb primed in Hell. Stand well close. Blood-proof pac-a-macs are recommended in the front rows. Not for the faint-hearted – though Giovanni has one to spare.

Runs until 30 March 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Bloody Hell! Romeo & Juliet gone bad.

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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