“‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore” at the Barbican

The Cheek By Jowl theatre company can’t come to London often enough for my liking – its visits are anticipated events. Touring to the Barbican for the last few years, this month it stages Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and revives its 2011 production of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. The latter is a vivid adaptation of the bloody incest tragedy, filled with modern choreography and startling music. And it revels in the horror and gore.

Ford doesn’t hold back. Nor does director Declan Donnellan, who towers over the show, or designer Nick Ormerod, who has created eye-popping imagery. Set in the teenage Annabella’s bedroom, with its vampire posters and red décor (she even drinks cranberry juice), this is the scene of her coupling with her brother Giovanni, a nuptial night from hell with her husband Soranzo and the many schemes that fill the play. The bed is always centre-stage: cavorted on, plotted on, the locale for sex and violence. With red sheets, of course.

Donnellan’s committed cast gives exhaustive performances. Orlando James and Eve Ponsonby are the siblings and their delivery of the text, combined with their physicality, is impressive. Ponsonby does particularly well when it comes to her character’s eventual remorse and fear, while James excels as Giovanni moves from “unsteady youth” to avenging madman. Maximelien Seweryn’s Soranzo and his servant, Will Alexander’s Vasques, make a virile team. Smaller female roles, increased in importance, make the big difference in this particular production. Annabella’s servant, played by Nicola Sanderson, becomes a key role as a foil to the tragedy. Ruth Everett is superb as Soranzo’s spurned lover, an appropriately overblown performance that includes a masterclass in moans.

With Cheek By Jowl on board, the play becomes strangely sexy. Tableaux that summarise Ford’s world view, and make a virtue of unsubtlety, make for startling theatre. The production is frank and brutal. It creates a real sense of the danger surrounding lust. There are moments of excess (I am not sure a stripper was called for) but this is another fine production from master theatremakers. With a clear, boldly abbreviated text, it’s precisely directed and full of memorable imagery.

Until 26 April 2014

www.barbican.org.uk

Written 13 April 2014 for The London Magazine

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