Monday, 12 March 2012

Review: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican

“Tis not, I know, my lust, but tis my fate that leads me on”

A quick glance at my Top 25 Plays of 2011 on the right sidebar will show you that Cheek by Jowl’s The Tempest was one of the absolute highlights of my theatregoing year and so by rights, I ought to have been highly excited for the company’s return to the Barbican with ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. But it was the Russian sister company that took on Shakespeare last year and my only other experience with CbJ’s English work was a rather painfully dull take on Macbeth, also at the Barbican, which meant I was a little equivocal about this prospect. Great word-of-mouth persuaded me to take the risk though, booking for late in the run, and it was well-founded as it turned out to be a highly inventive, energetic and deeply sexy evening at the theatre.

It was my first experience of the Jacobean tragedy, a cautionary tale about the problems of wanting to bonk your sister, which has been thoroughly revitalised in this modern-dress version which pulses along with the punchy soundtrack that starts the show along with a rather fun full-cast dance routine. Giovanni comes back from university, full of incestuous thoughts about his sister Annabella who is being pursued by a number of suitors. But as it turns out, she only has eyes for her brother too and though she ends up betrothed to Soranzo, watched by the vengeful Hippolita, the ramifications of their love have a deadly impact as religion, culture, corruption and morality collide.

Much like the Young Vic tried to do with their recent similarly modernised take on The Changeling, the text has been edited and compressed into an interval-less running time – a shade under 2 hours here – but where Joe Hill-Gibbins’ work ended up feeling quite (literally) messy, Declan Donnellan has maintained a fantastic clarity to the story-telling. So even as more characters are added to the mix and the sub-plots kick in, there was never any doubt in my mind as to what was going on (this does not happen as often as it should!).

Much of the strength of CbJ’s work evidently comes from the ensemble that is brought together and who work together so well throughout the show. When their characters are not onstage the players frequently form a Greek Chorus of sorts, whether it’s watching the action whilst eating pretzels on the bed, muttering and whispering and chanting evocatively at the protagonists, or maintaining a physical presence at the edges of the stage. It’s always effective, highly atmospheric and often simply used, but there’s always a precision here that makes every single gesture and utterance an integral part of the work.

And within the group, there are the types of performances that really pull you into the story, whether you want to or not. Chief amongst these is Lydia Wilson’s Annabella, a spiky Lisbeth Salander type with a partly shaven head, tats, attitude for days but crucially too, a deep well of emotional truth that forces the tragedy of the situation to the forefront. Wilson is profoundly affecting, especially as the consequences of fraternal love play for out for her in the most unfortunate way, and I found I could barely take my eyes off her. Jack Gordon as her puppyish brother was also compellingly good, the impulsiveness of his actions evident from the outset and I thought Jack Hawkins’ Soranzo also did well as the man who is lumbered with Annabella and her baggage. Though what I found interesting was the lack of censure of these characters, especially the incestuous ones, which must have been a very brave move by Ford when he was writing the show, but one which really works especially thrown up against the hypocrisy of the Church here.

Indeed it was one of those shows I could happily name-check every actor: Suzanne Burden’s vituperative Hippolita, Laurence Spellman’s excellently charismatic Vasques, Lizzie Hopley’s tragically gossipy maid Putana, David Mumeni’s beautifully pert Grimaldi...the list goes on. Throw in Nick Ormerod’s bed-dominated design and Judith Greenwood’s gorgeously suggestive lighting, a predilection for having the mens’ shirts fall off at regular intervals and an aesthetic that always felt accessible rather than arch, and I was left with the feeling that I’d seen the best thing I’ve seen all year.

Running time: 2 hours (with interval)
Booking until 10th March

3 comments:

Michael said...

Indeed it was tremendous. I love the phrase "pert Grimaldi" which is absolutely true of David Mumeni!

Ian said...

Hehe, isn't it just ;-)

David said...

Thanks Guys. Pert! Ill tell my agent. ;-)