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'Tis Pity She's a Whore

John Ford
Shakespeare's Globe
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe

Fiona Button as Annabella and Max Bennett as Giovanni Credit: Simon Kane
Stephano Brasci as Seranzo Credit: Simon Kane
Stephano Brasci as Seranzo and Fiona Button as Annabella (centre foreground) Credit: Simon Kane
Fiona Button as Annabella and Max Bennett as Giovanni Credit: Simon Kane

The nominal Whore in Ford’s play is Annabella, the beautiful and delightful daughter of a wealthy Parma gentleman who rejects the suitors lined up to be her husband. She is no whore in the modern sense but single-minded in her love, which is for her brother and his for her, their passionate feelings moving them to incest.

The play begins with studious Giovanni trying to convince his tutor, Friar Bonaventure, that his studies reveal that the Church sanctions sibling sex, while the Holy Father cautions him to control his passion. That neither of them can do so makes their tragic ending certain but Max Bennett’s Giovanni is so determined to find justification and Fiona Button's Annabella so genuinely innocent, both caught up in their emotions, that you can’t help but like them, especially when those around them are more darkly dangerous in their deceits and jealous revenges.

Plenty of blood and guts was obviously popular with Jacobean audiences in the indoor theatres, of which the Wanamaker is a recreation, and director Michael Longhurst gives us bucketfuls in this production, from the wounds of murdered men, blood-soaked sheets, letters written in blood, a bleeding heart ripped from a body. There is so much blood that serving women have to come on to mop it up.

In the candle-lit close proximity of audience to actor, this could be stomach-churning, but the complex machinations of Ford’s plot and alienating attitudes of most of his characters make that closeness emphasise the theatricality of what’s on show. Excess of gore made me think more about wardrobe’s laundry bill than making me queasy and the play is streaked through with broad humour that is part relief and part heightens the horror by contrast.

Designer Alex Lowde reinforces the sense of theatre by mixing the ruffs and rich brocades of costumes that look early 17th century with some modern-looking short skirts and shoes like trainers and paper money, perhaps to make us subconsciously feel closer to these people: not that they are a very nice bunch.

Stefano Braschi gives good looks and a warm voice to Soranzo, who gets to marry Annabella, though he’s no angel, and James Garnon makes her father’s first choice Bergetto a foolish but lively clown (as well as playing an evil cardinal who is a savage protestant caricature of Catholicism).

As Annabella’s conniving maid Putana, Morag Siller adds to the feeling of unthinking innocence around the incestuous couple. Their crime seems not so much to be their coupling, displayed with graphic explicitness, as letting their action be discovered.

Over three hours, most of this play’s characters meet violent ends and, as the screw tightens on Annabella and Giovanni, key moments are heightened with a soft shimmer of spine-tingling music while clever control of candlelight is used to great effect. The level of illumination increases concentration and helps a play three hours in length to hold attention.

Not every complexity is unravelled, but this an easy to follow production that is largely well spoken and involves the audience a little without overdoing it. Though conventional morality wins out, was putting Annabella’s final words into the mouth of the evil red-robed Cardinal Ford attempting a cleverly disguised exoneration?

Reviewer: Howard Loxton