Cheek by Jowl know how to put on a show. The company’s exhilarating production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore which has been touring Paris, Sydney, New York, London and Madrid for two years is finally now back in the UK, and set to fill the Oxford Playhouse with blood, guts and incest in less than a month’s time.
John Ford’s 1633 play, renowned for stirring up controversy among contemporary audiences, feels no less disturbing from a modern perspective. In this pared down production, the comic subplot is removed, foregrounding the erotic and macabre dynamics of the primary action, and allowing the play to be condensed into two hours without an interval. The set enhances this intensity; apart from brief moments where we find ourselves peering through the bedroom door or into the ensuite bathroom, the entire play takes place within Annabella’s room. This goes some way to recovering the intimate atmosphere of the Cockpit, where the Caroline productions are believed to have been held, and, with even greater effect, gives the audience a real sense of intruding on private space.
But Cheek by Jowl expertly balances the unsettling with the thrilling. The production saturates the original script with sensuality, exploiting powerful music and choreographed sequences, to intensify and release the steadily building tension. The thread of the plot, though, allows for no escape, switching between the central incestuous story and the hilarious peripheral plots of the whore Hippolyta, the machiavellian Vasquez, and the ridiculous maid Putana (deriving from ‘slut’ in Italian), we find ourselves immersed in an animalistic but exciting world, governed by lust and brutality.
While this makes for a highly entertaining evening, it also draws attention away from the intellectual aspects of the play. The exploration of fate and responsibility (underpinning Giovanni’s soliloquies), as well as religion and subversion (focused in the Friar’s scenes) which are central to the text, at times become buried under the aural and visual stimuli. But overall, this is another outstanding Cheek by Jowl production, which merits its widespread enthusiastic critical reception.
Cheek By Jowl’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore returns to the Oxford Playhouse from Tuesday-Saturday of 3rd week. Tickets start at £11