''Tis Pity She's a Whore'

The most baffling thing about this defiant "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" is that it's a Cheek by Jowl production directed by Declan Donnellan: He and his company have spent 30 years bringing lucidity and insight to productions of classics.

The most baffling thing about this defiant “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” is that it’s a Cheek by Jowl production directed by Declan Donnellan: He and his company have spent 30 years bringing lucidity and insight to productions of classics. Jacobean tragedy is not famed for subtlety, but for all this production’s intellectual and physical coherence — it’s entirely set on and around a blood-red bed in a young girl’s bedroom — the self-conscious execution smothers content, narrative and drama.

Although Donnellan has stripped out subplots and trimmed the play to run at an intermission-free two hours, anyone unfamiliar with the story is likely to have a very hard time for about the first hour until things have settled down. That’s largely because the manifest intent is to force us to see John Ford’s 17th century gore-fest — the incest-driven plot ends with the heroine’s heart being ripped out of her body — as urgent and contemporary.

The back wall of Nick Ormerod’s single set is adorned with posters signaling heroines in extremis from “Gone With the Wind” to “True Blood.” That degree of overstatement is promptly underlined by introducing the ensemble cast in severe evening dress in a highly stylized, collective sneer of dance moves to a thumping soundtrack.

From the middle of their writhing bodies emerges petulant, potent Annabella (Lydia Wilson). While it’s entirely valid to present her as heedless rather than innocent, it sets up a major problem. If she so readily capitulates to the agonized desires of her brother Giovanni (Jack Gordon, all wet-look black hair and bare chest), what should be a shockingly high-stakes decision — it’s the play’s crucial event — goes for almost nothing. He strips down to black underpants and off they go.

Indeed, almost all the men take every opportunity to rip their shirts off because, in case we haven’t spotted it, this is about sex, an idea fully present in the lust-filled text — not that you would know it, since so many of the lines are screamed. The result is that, for the most part, the intensity of the emotions comes across but not the moment-to-moment progression of ideas or character. The too-rare sequences of repose point up the unnecessary frenzy elsewhere.

Lethal Vasques (Laurence Spellman), for example, has to wheedle the truth about the secret affair out of the maid Putana (Lizzie Hopley). Here, sporting a regulation ponytail and cockney accent, Spellman enlists the help of a male stripper, and on Vasques’ line “I’ll help your old gums,” they massage cocaine onto their gums. The translation of word into action is undeniably neat but it’s indicative of a production that does your thinking for you: The over-illustration discourages audiences from using either their imagination or their ears.

As vengeful Hippolita, Suzanne Burden stands head and shoulders above the rest of the ensemble, one or two of whom are shockingly weak. Where others rant or stretch out words and pauses interminably to underline their intent, Burden roots the fierceness of her performance in scrupulous delivery of the text.

Some staging choices are inventive. There’s a visible off-stage bathroom connected to Annabella’s bedroom, which creates a dramatically plausible off-stage space for much of the extreme violence. And having Giovanni sneak on with a tool-kit ready to commit his final outrage is unexpectedly witty.

But for the most part, the well-staged effects are too generalized. Donnellan’s extreme directorial gestures are undeniably grand, but shorn of convincing detail, there’s too much display, not enough play.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore

312 seats; £26 $41 top

Production

Credits: A Cheek by Jowl co-production with the Barbican London, Les Gemeaux/Sceaux/Scene Nationale and Sydney Festival presentation of a play in one act by John Ford. Directed by Declan Donnellan.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Nick Ormerod; lighting, Judith Greenwood; sound and music, Nick Powell; movement, Jane Gibson; production stage manager, Dougie Wilson. Opened, reviewed Feb. 21, 2012. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Annabella - Lydia Wilson
Giovanni - Jack Gordon
Hippolita - Suzanne Burder
Soranzo - Jack Hawkins
Vasques - Laurence Spellman
Putana - Lizzie Hopley
With David Collings, Ryan Ellsworth, Jimmy Fairhurst, Nyasha Hatendi, Peter Moreton, David Mumeni.

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