Sitting in the National Theater on Saturday night felt like being plunged headfirst into a bloody, nightmare world torn from the headlines of US’ National Enquirer, the UK’s Daily Mail or the Apple Daily.
John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore centers on hormonal, self-centered teenagers (is there any other kind?) and features lots of sex, a spurned mistress seeking revenge, physical battery, torture and murder — all the ingredients of a juicy tabloid story or a Quentin Tarantino film. It is hard to believe that it comes from an English play dated 1633.
While relatively shocking for modern theater audiences, such blood-drenched tales of revenge were nothing new in the early 1600s; William Shakespeare’s goriest play, Titus Andronicus, dates back to at least 1590 and he was just trying to keep up with his contemporaries.
’Tis Pity certainly matches Titus in body count and blood, though much of the brutality is unseen in the production by the British company Cheek by Jowl — it is left to the audience’s imagination to decide what is provoking all the screams coming from behind the bathroom door.
Director Declan Donnellan may have streamlined ’Tis Pity from Ford’s original, but his version certainly packs a punch. The cast maintain a relentless pace first set by the hard-pounding synchronized dance number that brings all 12 actors onto stage at the beginning of the play, getting a breather only during the intermittent freeze-frame tableaus. Those tableaus provide a break in the tension for the audience as well, since there is no intermission in the 120-minute show.
Donnellan’s cheeky updating of the play to modern dress includes a lot of undressing, with Eve Ponsonby as Annabella, spending a quite a bit of time clad just in bra and panties, while her male colleagues frequently tear off their shirts and two strip completely to the buff in the bathroom — though only their backsides are seen.
Ponsonby is the heart of the production, changing from a lonely teen, who, unhappy at the thought of an arranged marriage, allows herself to be swept away by her brother’s passion, to an infatuated sex kitten, to a regret-filled young woman who realizes that such a marriage is her only salvation.
Orlando James was self-centered and impetuous as Annabella’s incestuous brother Giovanni, while Maximilien Seweryn played Soranzo, Annabella’s eventual husband, as a loud, brash City banker-like character.
Will James gave an outstanding performance as Soranzo’s Machiavellian manservant, Vasques, while also memorable were Nicola Sanderson as Annabella’s bawdy nurse/maid Putana and Ruth Everett’s bit-over-the-top portrayal of Soranzo’s scorned, revengeful mistress, Hippolita.
The only disappointment — and a minor one — came from the inconsistent clarity of the actors’ voices. In a few of the scenes that required a torrent of dialogue or more than one person talking, key points were lost through muddied projection. Audiences following the action by reading the Chinese translation on the screens on either side of the stage probably did not notice. At least, thanks to all the undressing, you could be sure that the actors were not relying on body mikes to carry their voices to the back of the theater.
’Tis Pity was the third Cheek by Jowl production to play at the National Theater as part of the annual Taiwan International Festival of Arts, following a Russian-language version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 2008 and The Tempest in 2012. Let us hope that the festival programmers continue to keep the company at the top of their contact lists.
One caveat: You know you have watched far too many episodes of CSI when one of the things you think about on the way home is that the arterial blood spray that so artfully marks the bathroom wall at the end of the play was a nice touch, but wrong.
If Giovanni snapped Annabella’s neck — as he appears to do before he carries her into the bathroom — her heart would not have been pumping blood when he cut it out. While he was rightly bloody when he carries the heart back onstage, there should not have been a spray across the wall.
Death was much easier to portray before forensics became part of popular culture.