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Friday, 24 September 2010 10:00

Review: ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore

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’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is a dark tale of lust and revenge, centring on sexual love between a brother and a sister. While this may sound like an average episode of Hollyoaks, actually it’s got more in common with one of those dark gothic movies from the 1940s starring Bette Davies, the ones you snuggle up on the couch to watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon and get lost in. Or I do anyway. The last time ’Tis Pity was on at Liverpool’s Everyman it was directed by John Doyle and known locally as ‘Tis Pity She’s a Horse’, so I was amused this time to see my ticket printed with ‘Tis Pity She’s a Who’, suggesting an element of time travel and shape shifting that writer John Ford could surely not have anticipated.

 

Pleasingly, the auditorium was slightly reminiscent of a Tardis, at least in its use of space. Ashley Shairp’s clever design had taken the dado motif from the theatre’s walls and continued around the whole set, having the effect of enclosing the entire auditorium. The building the Everyman is housed in was originally a church and this enhanced the ecclesiastical feel of the play. In addition, it helped Shairp create levels which the director used to good effect, placing the bedroom where the central ‘act’ takes place right in the middle of the stage, and creating a high dais upstage for much of the priestly business. He also uses windows and doors hidden in the set like windows in an Advent calendar, and these became exits, cupboards and even a very well conceived household altar as the play proceeded. It works very well indeed.

If I’m honest (and irritatingly I generally am), the first half was a little difficult, at least at the beginning. John Ford is a master of structure and great at moving the action on, so much so he would have made a great television writer if only someone had invented it in time. And of course he was writing in a pre-Freudian era, so there wasn’t the same emphasis on individual psychological motivation. Consequently the script is a little short on deliberation about such an unspeakable act, and in the absence of much reasoning, at least on the part of the sister, the audience needed more of a rationale for the breaking of this great taboo. The director and indeed the actor tried to make up for this through some clever tableaux, but the protagonists lacked the chemistry that may have helped the audience to rationalise such a reckless act. Nonetheless the deed is done, and done sensitively and quite beautifully in a way that - to some extent - helps the audience identify with the brother and sister and at least understand some of the arguments the brother makes.

The jury is out about whether Ford means the audience to be outraged by such filial behaviour, titillated, driven in their excitement to buy more tickets, or actually wants a dialectic that questions the morals of the day. I’m firmly in the last camp and this production provided a nice contrast between the condemned sister, who remained beautiful and seemingly virginal even when all evidence is to the contrary, and some of the more sinister characters who suffer less condemnation.

One of these is the frankly terrifying Ken Bradshaw who plays the evil servant and fixer Vasquez, a sort of anti-Jeeves, played simultaneously with great power and subtlety in a really accomplished performance. Eileen O’Brien as the nurse is similarly well judged, and she manages to deliver the laugh lines hilariously while never undermining the gravity of the piece, something that cannot be said for everybody. And last night Emily Pithon’s Hippolita provided the turning point of the show in an absolutely spellbinding scene in which she had the whole audience dumbstruck by her compelling portrayal of a (perhaps understandably) bitter and vengeful widow. Her appearance and her song are haunting, reminiscent of a wronged victim-heroine from Wilkie Collins or Conan Doyle, and she sustains the moment as bravely as a Carol Reed or David Lean; it’s a theatrical moment I don’t think I’ll forget.

From this point the whole piece found its rhythm and continued to its inevitable climax, taking the whole audience with it. Indeed there was a group of young people on the front row of the pews who gasped audibly at some of the more shocking moments; the rest of us were not more cynical, merely less audible in our shock - and our enjoyment of it. The director, Chris Meads, handled the issues very well and also created beautiful tableaux without them seeming forced or measured with a ruler, as lesser directors do. The direction could be better still if he was more courageous in prolonging a pause, but this is nitpicking. Heather Fenoughty’s music really helped to sustain the grave atmosphere, even if this was sometimes undermined with too much anachronistic levity on stage. And there were lovely performances (Hugh Skinner’s increasingly frantic Giovanni and Paul McCleary as his increasingly worried father deserve a mention). Overall this was an excellent treatment of a drama that can be quite difficult for modern audiences, storytelling at its best, and I certainly enjoyed it. Go and see it if you can.

Read 2813 times Last modified on Wednesday, 27 November 2013 15:47
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