at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 2nd February 2012
It’t not difficult to see why John Ford’s'Tis Poty She’s a Whoreis studied as a key text at secondary schools; the inherant sexuality and dynamism of the play can be just the right thing to introduce tennagers to Jacobean tragedy. When looked at closely, however, it’s not that good a play. The verse is not nearly on par with Ford’s contemporaries, there is very little by the way of actual plot and decent motivations for the characters is all but absent. Cheek By Jowl’s new production, however, directed by Declan Donnellan, injects some pace, energy and style into the piece and shows we still haven’t won the fight against patriarchy.
Cleverly, all the action takes place on and around a central bed, utterly changing the meaning behind the relationship of Annabella and Giovanni. Rather than necessarily looking for one another, it is the bed which unites them, drawing them towards sexual union as they lust after their past and come to a realisation about their feelings. Annabella rarely leaves the stage (and by extension the bed), bolstering the idea that the men around her only view her as a sexual or vulnerable being.
Donnellan’s production doesn’t shy away from the violence in the latter half of the play, and there is no shortage of blood, but it is also aware how farcical Ford’s text is. Whilst the blood never seems ridiculousness, there is the clear idea everything is done with a tongue in the cheek. Nick Ormerod’s detailed set brings in images of Christ, vampires and sex bathed in blood red and imperceptibly heightened to draw out the brutality and theatricality of the play.
Some superb performances give the verse weight, not least Suzanna Burden’s vile Hippolita (which verges exquisitely on the pantomime) and Jack Hawkins’ subtly misogynistic Soranzo. Laurence Spellman’s Vasques and Lizzie Hopley’s Putana provide some welcome comedy and humanity over the show’s two hours, even though their fate is just as doomed as everyone else’s. Lydia Wilson, however, it utterly enchanting as Annabella, and steals the show, managing to portray innocence and experience in equal measure and ensuring every audience member is seduced. Some captivating hand gestures, reminiscent of sign-language and co-ordinated by Jane Gibson’s movement direction, add to her helplessness and create an extra layer of meaning.
Some smooth movement work is complemented by Nick Powell’s youthful music and lit with panache by Judith Greenwood. Donnellan makes sure we never know what to think about this play; it is both dark and comic, serious and ridiculous. It’s certain, however, that the stifling male world Annabella lives in is one not much different from our own, and that if we continue as we are, things could get rather bloody indeed.