‘Tarantino meets Gaga’
Following seminal productions of The Changeling and The Duchess of Malfi, Cheek by Jowl, one of the world’s great theatre companies, returns to Jacobean tragedy with a new production of John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore.
Jacobean tragedy ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore is one of the most controversial works of English literature. The tale of an incestuous love between Giovanni and his sister Annabella that ends in violent disaster, when it was first performed in the early 17th century, playwright John Ford was eviscerated by angry critics and audiences, who particularly lambasted his failure to condemn his protagonist, Giovanni, who is arguably painted as a talented, noble man undone by a tumultuous passion. However, this initially refusal to engage with the complexities and ambiguities innate in the text has tempered over time, and today ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore is considered a masterpiece, albeit a highly confronting one.
Now, one of the world’s great theatre companies, London’s Cheek By Jowl, is coming to Sydney Festival with a new production of the play, which recently had its world premiere in Paris to rave reviews. According to Lydia Wilson, who plays Annabella, despite the play being almost 400 years old, it resonates just as strongly today.
“What’s strange in the writing is how easy it is to emotionally and kind of neurotically connect with what the characters are describing,” she tells AXN. “The actual event – the incest – happens pretty early on in the play. It’s kind of the opening offer, and then we experience the fallout. That in itself feels quite modern – in that we act, we fumble around, and then suddenly it’s all ‘what have we done?’ So it’s pretty easy to connect with. I’ve been amazed at how available it is for quite extreme reading.”
Directed by the revered Declan Donnellan, his version pulls no punches, Wilson says. “We’re not doing a romantic version of the play, and I’m glad for that. I was all ready to play a Romeo and Juliet situation – ‘isn’t it mean of everybody to be up at us just because we’re brother and sister.’ But Declan has encouraged us to be less romantic about it – he’s asked us to examine the violence of what they do against the society they live in as well as the society’s violence towards them. It’s quite an un-patronising look at their suffering.”
Wilson’s Annabella is decidedly more feminist than most other recent productions of the play. “She is a massive agent in her own life and death, and there are elements of her story that, rather than suggest she’s a victim, suggest that it’s actually her ultimate fantasy. All these people fall in love with her, but she refuses to go with anyone – instead she chooses the one person she’s not allowed to have. It’s a really powerful thing to do.”
Cheek by Jowl is famous for the intense yet informal rapport between actors and audience inherent in their productions. The fourth wall is a foreign concept. “It’s very explicitly communicated to us that the audience is welcome and that our job is to host a party,” Wilson says. “And if you invite people to a party, you don’t sit in the corner and wait for them to introduce themselves.”
Wilson calls the calls the tenor of the production “Tarantino meets Lady Gaga”. “It’s a real joy to do because it doesn’t shy away from anything – it’s not polite, it’s not tactful, it’s got guts!”
Sydney Theatre (22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay) from January 17-21. Bookings at www.sydneyfestival.org.au