John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore (1633) is a drama about the family reunion from hell. Giovanni, a young Italian nobleman, has just returned home after a year at university. He is not having fun, as he is falling in love with his sister Annabella and is desperately seeking the help of the church to banish his desires. When he fails and she becomes pregnant, she hastily marries her suitor Soranzo to mask her shame — only to have her husband discover the illegitimate pregnancy and plot a gory revenge.
It’s a play about violence, and it’s a play about incest. In a Cheek By Jowl production that premieres tonight, it’s also the coming-of-age story of a teenaged girl.
“The text is the guide, but the way we look at the text changes over time,” said assistant director Paris Erotokritou.
Founded in 1981 by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, Cheek By Jowl is a London-based company acclaimed for its stagings of Shakespearean plays — notably Twelfth Night — and of other classical literature.
Its productions are based on re-examinations of text, Erotokritou said. Actors pore through the original source with a kit of critical lenses. Then they improvise portions of scene to create what audiences eventually see onstage.
“You don’t know what’s going to come up. Actors generate a lot of material in rehearsals and that’s tweaked,” he said.
For this modern-dress version of Ford’s play, Cheek By Jowl has removed a few small and large subplots and deleted characters, including the one who utters the original concluding line, “’Tis pity she’s a whore.”
“We wanted to focus on Annabella’s journey, rather than have two or three subplots around that. You can clearly see that journey onstage, from recklessness to the maturity of a woman,” he said.
’Tis a Pity takes place in Annabella’s bedroom, which is cluttered modishly with hip furniture, an Audrey Hepburn pinup and a poster for True Blood.
Eve Ponsonby, who plays Annabella, says the adolescent has a distinctive but age-appropriate moral immaturity.
“She starts in a place of huge naivete, she’s going through puberty and trying to find her sexuality,” Ponsonby said.
To Ponsonby, Annabella is problematic and unusual in that she engages in incest, yet the motivation behind it is a common human condition.
“I believe it comes from a fear of loss. She and her brother were best friends growing up, and he had gone away. The play begins when he’s just come back and she’s being pressured to marry,” she said.
“Annabella doesn’t know how to express her fear of completely losing him. She finds this love and she feels strong from it.”
’Tis Pity premieres in Taipei tonight with mature themes, brief nudity, cigarette smoking and stage blood and is recommended for audiences aged 18 and older. Performance is in English with Chinese subtitles. Running time: 120 minutes, no intermission.