Powerful telling of notorious tale
‘TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE
By John Ford
Performing Arts students, Suffolk New College until 25 May 2012
We know even less about the life of the early 17th Century playwright, John Ford, than we do about his illustrious predecessor, Shakespeare – but no-one has ever doubted the authorship of his plays, of which ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore is the most well-known and controversial. Ford could be said to be the man who put the “Grand” in “Guignol” – the play is in the tradition of the great Jacobean revenge tragedies, with enough stabbings, poisonings and gore to satisfy the most enthusiastic fan of today’s splatter films.
But there’s more to this than blood and guts. Like Shakespeare, Ford created complex people. He doesn’t judge his characters, there is often a moral ambiguity about them. There are strong echoes of Shakespeare, too, especially Hamlet, with its portrayal of the psychological disintegration of the main character and the body count in the final scene. And the leading pair of young lovers, Giovanni and Annabella could easily be Romeo and Juliet - were it not for the fact that they are brother and sister.
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It is their incestuous relationship that has given the play its notoriety and the moment when the couple kiss still shocks us nearly 400 years on. Unnatural it may be, but in a perverse way their affair seems strangely pure and wholesome when set against the immoral and suffocating world they live in. Something is rotten in the state of Parma – a world where loyalty is bought with a bag of gold, the government (in the form of the Cardinal) is corrupt, and women are treated as mere possessions to be used and abused. You get the feeling that, despite the Friar Bonavetura’s dire warnings of fire and brimstone, a whole city is on its way to hell in a hand-cart.
All of this is powerfully brought out in Brain Theodore Ralph’s excellent production for the Diploma in Performing Arts students at Suffolk New College. It is strikingly designed, too, the dark setting haunted by hooded monks and the heavily textured brocade and velvets of the costumes reflecting the oppressive atmosphere. But the great virtue of the production is the way in which the director has instilled in his cast a total commitment to telling the story.
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Inevitably, with actors who are learning their craft, some of the performers are stronger than others, but Steve Withers beautifully charts the unravelling of Giovanni’s mind as his desire gives way to lust and obsession. Gemma Raw is just as passionate as Annabella. Much needed comic relief is provided by Kyle Pearce as the foppish Bergetto and delightful Molly Scurrell as his sympathetic sidekick Poggio. Adam Thompson, stepping in at exceptionally short notice, brings a sinister Iago-like calculation to the loyal servant who will stop at nothing to protect his master.