Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Barbican Centre

Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Barbican Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 24.02.2012

Let’s start with Bridget Jones; an unlikely counterpoint to John Ford’s brutal revenge tragedy, admittedly, but one that surfaces in Cheek by Jowl’s thrilling revival nonetheless.

Like our Bridge, Annabella is torn between two suitors of opposing parental approval. Jack Hawkins’s Soranzo is the eligible, square-jawed nice-chap; Jack Gordon’s Giovanni, greasy-haired and dressed in a tight-fitting black T-shirt, is the irresistible bad-boy; the intriguing, bookish, chauvinistic social misfit with a magnetic sexual pull. He’s also her brother, and thus comparisons with Hugh Grant – sorry Daniel Cleaver – come to an abrupt halt.

Ok, so they’re not like for like, but my point is that Annabella’s lot is, in some ways, a cinematic staple. Think of American Beauty’s Ricky Fitts, James Dean’s causeless rebel Jim Stark, even Grease’s Danny Zucco. Or, slightly differently, look at the battle for Ryan Phillippe in Cruel Intentions. Were ‘Tis Pity… a rom-com it would end in one of two ways. Either with the bad-boy tamed or with the good-at-heart girl’s renouncement of him for the triumphant good-guy. Ford’s play, of course, is anything but (rev-trav?), and ends with Annabella and her unborn child dead and Giovanni brandishing the heart he’s ripped out of her.

In any case, designer Nick Ormerod leaves us no doubt that Hollywood (and, wider, pop cultural aspirations) should be at the forefront of our minds throughout. Annabella’s teenage bedroom – the production is contemporary and youthful, almost ‘in-thy-face’ theatre – is lined with posters: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Gone With the Wind, True Blood. For every iconic ingénue there’s a femme fatale, and Lydia Wilson’s fantastic Annabella aspires to both simultaneously. In fact, she is split like a half-and-half musical hall act. Seen in one profile she’s perfectly demure; in the other, tattooed and shaven-headed. Her voice is just as schizophrenic: prim and clipped politeness interrupted by cavernous growls that burst from her gut. She truly is the “double soul” of which Giovanni speaks.

Donnellan’s production centres on attraction and revulsion, showing the two to be thoroughly connected emotions. Centrestage is Annabella’s bed, to which hopeful lovers – not just Giovanni and Soranza – are drawn. They circle it like hyenas descending on a carcass and call to mind the patrons of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, salivating over Nicole Kidman’s showgirl. Yet, just as often, they spring back in disgust, and pin themselves to the walls, horrified, but nonetheless unable to avert their eyes. After Annabella’s death is revealed, each one in turn walks coolly over to the bloodstained en-suite bathroom and peers in, inexplicably pulled to the murder scene. Some recoil, wretching. Others stand transfixed. All must look, but none can bear to see. Omerod’s design is all lipstick and bile; deep red and chemical green throb discordantly together. The whole things pulsates with sex.

That finds a contrast in the hollow iconography – both sexual and religious – of the world around them. Annabella is first seen dancing as if in a Beyonce video, surrounded by suited men. She becomes a Vegas virgin Mary in Soranzo’s shrine, mirroring the gauche poster of the Madonna (not the popstar) on her bedroom wall. Here sex is everything and nothing at once, and Donnellan handles it – and the play’s violence, mostly half-glimpsed in back rooms, as elbows lash out and nosebleeds begin – with relished flair. At one point, Soranzo storms towards Annabella with a contorted coathanger; a sharp contrast to the mostly bouyant atmosphere of fiestas and folk-dancing. Nick Powell’s sound design is fantastic, adding to the tone of an Anthony Neilson-style hallucination.

For all this could, ultimately, be in Annabella’s head. Finally, she stands over Giovanni, looking at her own heart. Are these her dark fantasies, urged on by female role models seen onscreen: sexualised pop stars and Hollywood’s array of vixens, vamps and virgins?

Photograph: Manuel Harlon

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  1. After us, a gentle king: Declan Donnellan | Matt Trueman - [...] goes on and on. Awkward children one and all. Their last production, John Ford’s revenge tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s …

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