Before Quentin Tarantino, Martin McDonagh and all the other sadistic bad boys of film and theater, there was the 17th century dramatist John Ford testing his audience’s tolerance for perverse blood sport.
In his most popular play, “ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” now at Freud Playhouse through Saturday in an international touring production by the acclaimed London-based company Cheek by Jowl, Ford does his best to out-Jacobean the Jacobean playwrights he was weaned on. Revenge isn’t just the main dish — it’s the theme of his entire buffet. And as the title suggests, women receive the worst of it.
Making matters more outrageous, the romance at the center of the drama is an incestuous one, the love story of a brother and sister so passionately drawn to each other that Wagner, no stranger to sibling seduction, might find the whole steamy treatment a touch embarrassing. Ford doesn’t ask us to root for their forbidden union, but he doesn’t condemn it outright. A shocking ambivalence prevails.
Consider this your warning to leave your moral indignation in your car (which is where mine initially got worked up after paying UCLA’s exorbitant $11 parking fee). The Parma, Italy, setting for Ford’s tragedy is a Machiavellian world where noble-born men with strong connections to the church get away with murder. And the most tender emotions, sprung from outlawed sources, are destined to be trampled by homicidal hypocrites ostensibly defending honor’s cause.
Presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, the production surreally unfolds in the bedroom of Annabella (Gina Bramhill), the object of adoration of her brother Giovanni (Orlando James), an educated man who can’t understand why societal convention should bar his bliss.
In Declan Donnellan’s modern-dress staging (co-directed by Owen Horsley), Annabella lounges in her diabolically red chamber bedecked with movie posters, flipping distractedly through the pages of a magazine while music streams directly into her ears. She’s neither saint nor sinner but a flesh-and-blood creature susceptible to the noxious influences around her. That includes her debauched “tutoress,” Putana (a deliciously naughty Nicola Sanderson), who in an early scene assesses Annabella’s suitors in the manner of an emcee at a male strip show.
Donnellan takes liberties with the text, excising a comic subplot, condensing scenes and revving up the theatricality to the point of dizziness. At times the characters seem to be spinning at a drug-fueled rave; at others they seem trapped in a hallucinatory hell. The decadence is mesmerizingly brought to life, but the storytelling gets fuzzy in places. And in trying to keep the ensemble onstage at all times, Donnellan is occasionally forced to throw logic out the window, as when an actor, brutalized in one role, kicks up her heels at a party as an extra in a subsequent scene.
It didn’t help that the actors at Wednesday’s opening were still figuring out the Freud’s acoustical challenges and that whole lines were being swallowed. Still, there’s a fiendish energy to the production that’s compulsively watchable, and though I wouldn’t rank this Cheek by Jowl offering with the company’s gender-bending “As You Like It” (the best version of Shakespeare’s incessantly revived comedy I’ve seen), I appreciate Donnellan’s enlivening directorial hand with recalcitrant classics.
In addition to a barrage of shirtless men, there are some marvelous portraits on display, including Hedydd Dylan’s Hippolita, an adulteress scorned who decides to take justice into her own hands and comes a cropper (savagely, as is to be expected in a society in which tongues are ripped out and noses are slit when male power is slighted in the least).
Most vivid of all is Laurence Spellman’s Vasques, the rough-and-tumble servant of Annabella’s eventual husband, the powerful and punishing Soranzo (Gyuri Sarossy). The devious Vasques, always ready to do his master’s vengeful bidding (and boy, is there a lot to do once Soranzo discovers that Annabella is pregnant with her brother’s child), is supposed to be Spanish, but Spellman’s Cockney accent and streetwise manner only intensify the character’s henchman menace.
As Annabella and Giovanni, Bramhill and James generate discomforting sparks in their half-naked clutching of each other. Theirs is a carnal connection and no amount of philosophizing by Giovanni can persuade us otherwise. The production attempts to focus the dramatic journey on Annabella, examining her pangs of conscience as her situation darkens, though this is hardly a feminist reading of a play rife with murderous misogyny.
T.S. Eliot, who was dearly devoted to the extremity of English Renaissance drama, faulted “ ‘Tis Pity” for lacking the “general significance and emotional depth” without which no morally reprehensible action can be justified. Cheek By Jowl’s revival leaves you with the same disquieting frisson of a Tarantino film or McDonagh play, raising questions about the artistic purpose of shock and horror that have no easy answers and may send you home more disturbed than entertained.
’ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood
When: 8 p.m Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. Ends Saturday.
Contact: https://www.cap.ucla.edu or (310) 825-2101
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes