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Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Jude Law performs a backward somersault late in the Young Vic's breathless new production of "Tis Pity She's a Whore," but by that point he won't be the only one who's flipped. Amid a season of classic revivals ranging from the over-the-top (the Almeida's "Jew of Malta") to the deadly dull ("Antigone" at the Old Vic), writer-turned-director David Lan's "Tis Pity" couldn't be more welcome. Perfectly attuned to the demands of a difficult text and yet equally well pitched to appeal to the fresh, unseasoned audience that has always been the Young Vic's mainstay, Lan's staging survives a hesitant beginning to make something both measured and mesmerizing out of a potential gorefest. There's little hysteria, thankfully, to this "Tis Pity": just the doleful sounds of a 17 th-century tragedy that isn't above ripping out its distaff lead's heart in order to appeal to a spectator's (hopefully still intact) one.

With:
Giovanni ..... Jude Law Annabella ..... Eve Best Putana ..... Annette Badland Soranzo ..... Kevin McKidd Hippolita ..... Caroline Langrishe Florio ..... David Lyon Vasques ..... Philip Whitchurch Friar ..... Des McAleer Bergetto/Cardinal/ Grimaldi ..... Christopher James

Jude Law performs a backward somersault late in the Young Vic’s breathless new production of “Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” but by that point he won’t be the only one who’s flipped. Amid a season of classic revivals ranging from the over-the-top (the Almeida’s “Jew of Malta”) to the deadly dull (“Antigone” at the Old Vic), writer-turned-director David Lan’s “Tis Pity” couldn’t be more welcome. Perfectly attuned to the demands of a difficult text and yet equally well pitched to appeal to the fresh, unseasoned audience that has always been the Young Vic’s mainstay, Lan’s staging survives a hesitant beginning to make something both measured and mesmerizing out of a potential gorefest. There’s little hysteria, thankfully, to this “Tis Pity”: just the doleful sounds of a 17 th-century tragedy that isn’t above ripping out its distaff lead’s heart in order to appeal to a spectator’s (hopefully still intact) one.

This is Law’s first play since his Tony-nommed work on Broadway in 1995’s “Indiscretions” led to the films that have made him a star. But long before he was one of Hollywood’s most popular Britboys, Law was the fevered center of an all too short-lived Royal Shakespeare Co. production of Euripides’ “Ion,” in a version by Lan, who is the director here. The two are a good match: As his superlative translation of “Uncle Vanya” at this same address last year proved, Lan seems to possess unfettered emotional access to the urgent pulse of the canon’s lasting plays, and in Law he has a collaborator who couldn’t be boring if he tried. Seldom have three hours gone off like such a shot.

The indices at the outset aren’t necessarily auspicious, with Law’s baleful Giovanni — lovesick brother to the object of his incestuous desire, Annabella (a radiant Eve Best) — collapsing tearily to the floor of Richard Hudson’s planked, mostly unadorned stage.

Is this John Ford, dramatic exemplar of the supposed decadence of the reign of Charles I? As played at the very start, the Giovanni on view seems little more than a whinier version of Hamlet who has managed an intimacy with Annabella of a sort that even Ophelia at her most mad would never have imagined. (Referred to as “a woeful man wrapped up in grief,” Giovanni certainly passes the Hamlet wanna-be test.)

Once Law regains his composure, the production does, too, and from that moment on never looks back. For all the initial sturm und drang, Lan’s approach is commendably free of the lurid sensationalism that can find the public for this play staring into its lap. It isn’t simply that Lan refuses to stage the eleventh-hour skewering of Annabella’s heart as a shock tactic from the pre-“Scream” era. For all the febrile emotions the play describes, the mood is one of a heightened seriousness that carries real and unhistrionic weight. It’s no accident that the nobleman Soranzo (Kevin McKidd, in terrific form), Annabella’s spouse, speaks of “my blood on fire” in the calmest way. By the end, it’s as if Giovanni’s emotional extroversion is part of a grim fate that gets voiced early on amid a climate of shadowy intrigue and social and religious conformity whereby “hidden flames” existto burn their possessor out.

In context, the perverse fact is that Giovanni just may be the play’s most honest figure, since he at least is true to an utterable desire. That’s more than can be said for most of the schemers that surround him, whether they be Hippolita (a one-note Caroline Langrishe), a woman done in by her own treachery, or the ever-unrepentant Vasques (Philip Whitchurch), who earns an eleventh-hour caress from Annabella’s guardian, Putana (Annette Badland), not long before she in turn is led to a gruesome end. Playing the confidante who gives the game away , Badland cuts a memorably frightened turncoat in one of this performer’s few roles not to trade on her ample girth. (Badland played Brenda Blethyn’s fat friend in the film of “Little Voice.”)

The staging is as simple as its emotional trajectory is clear, with a mix of modern and period dress suggesting a “Tis Pity” for most (if not all) times. A cloaked entourage appears at various moments, shielding from view the siblings’ illicit act and at one point passing Law some water before his character goes into heat. Abetted by Jonathan Dove’s elegant original score, its affect poised between fairground music and requiem, the evening is too smart, though, to cool the characters’ natural passions, even if — in crucial other ways — it’s the coolest show in town.

Tis Pity She's a Whore

(DRAMA REVIVAL; YOUNG VIC THEATER; 350 SEATS; $:18 ($ 30) TOP)

Production: LONDON A Young Vic Theater Co. presentation of the play by John Ford in two acts. Directed by David Lan.

Crew: Sets, Richard Hudson; costumes, Gideon Davey; lighting, Adam Silverman; music, Jonathan Dove; choreography, Kate Flatt; fight director, Malcolm Ranson. Opened Oct. 8, 1999. Reviewed Oct. 7. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MIN.

With: Giovanni ..... Jude Law Annabella ..... Eve Best Putana ..... Annette Badland Soranzo ..... Kevin McKidd Hippolita ..... Caroline Langrishe Florio ..... David Lyon Vasques ..... Philip Whitchurch Friar ..... Des McAleer Bergetto/Cardinal/ Grimaldi ..... Christopher JamesWith: Catherine Bailey, Stee Billingsley, Edward Hughes, Steven Grihault, Tom Hodgkins.

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