Fate and the gods of theatrical production brought a Jacobean tragedy to BAM recently, and while grumpy traditionalism isn’t a position I want to adopt, a little more tradition would’ve been welcome in its interpretation; the brisk, modernized, and too-busy staging eventually caused the play to lose its balance.
Much can be said about John Ford’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, beginning with the likelihood that it’s not strictly Jacobean. The term applies to the reign of James I of England (1603–25), who succeeded Elizabeth I on the throne; he directed the Bible translation still known by his name, but his rule also shaped the creation of the darkest and bloodiest set of plays we have. (Remember the child with a taste for torture in Shakespeare in Love? He grew up to be John Webster, a leading dramatist of the style). Ford’s play, however, probably dates from the 1630s and the reign of the next king, Charles I (1625–49).
But the term “Caroline” seems little used nowadays by anyone but scholars. Besides, in spirit the play is of a piece with everything we label Jacobean tragedy. Many of the greatest of these plays, which includes ’Tis Pity, have been presented in New York in the last decade or so: The White Devil, performed by Sydney Theatre Company at BAM in 2001; The Revenger’s Tragedy, performed by Red Bull in 2005; and The Duchess of Malfi, performed by Red Bull in 2010. (Incidentally, New York’s Theater for a New Audience performed a less-familiar John Ford play, The Broken Heart, earlier this year; regrettably, I learned about it after the fact.) A key word for these plays is “horrific.” They’re a drama of many D-words—dissolution, debauchery, depravity, decadence; they feature often-Byzantine plots, revenge with a vengeance, corruption high and low, severed limbs and knifed-out organs, countless methods of murder, and at least one case of lycanthropy (i.e., a wolf man). I still relish a sensational death in The White Devil at BAM in which a character was killed by a poisoned fencing helmet: when he removed it, it appeared to be dissolving his head into blood.
The theatrical sensationalism of the Jacobean tragedies accounts for part of their current appeal; it plays to a taste for spectacle and violence just as Hollywood often does. But their moral ambiguity is what has really found them a second home in our time. The fine Australian critic Alison Croggon wrote in a review of one of them that “their dark machineries reflected a godless world in which human passion flamed out and extinguished itself in a materialistic, cynical and bloodily hierarchical society.” Even the verse of these tragedies—which is sometimes exhausted in comparison with Marlowe and Shakespeare—is winning; T. S. Eliot prized it.
Ford’s ’Tis Pity gives passion a special twist. His young couple, in a deliberate echo of Romeo and Juliet, indulge in a love that’s just as doomed as Shakespeare’s, and again it’s for reasons of family—they’re brother and sister. Like the love of Romeo and Juliet, the feelings of Giovanni and Annabella for each other in this play are genuine and deep, not purely a matter of physical attraction, and it’s expressed lyrically in the text.
Readers will be saved from any further historical or critical ventures on my part by the fact that they wouldn’t have much bearing on the staging of ’Tis Pity that the British company Cheek by Jowl brought to BAM for two weeks in March. The production was slimmed down, jazzed up, and sped along enough that I still want to know what it’s like to see Ford’s play.
The performers, including Jack Gordon as Giovanni and Lydia Wilson as Annabella, can’t really be faulted. Gordon and Wilson brought youthful vigor and freshness to their roles and were a joy, especially early on. They and the nine other players achieved some almost musical effects with the rhythms of their verse, although Wilson was usually a few notches too quiet to be fully intelligible. The vivid designs by Nick Ormerod, relying on black, white, and red as the dominant colors, provided dramatic clarity without being schematic.
What troubled me was Declan Donnellan’s direction. He trimmed the text and the character count; without intermission, the show ran just under two hours (certainly shorter than the full play, though I don’t know by how much). He and Ormerod placed a bed at center stage, suggesting, rather reductively, that lust and not love is what drives Giovanni and Arabella (maybe that’s true of the others, but not them). This also limited the staging, though much less than I expected. Donnellan livened things up with music-and-dance moments–even a wedding song–which contributed to the contemporary atmosphere he wanted but seemed daft on one occasion (dancing cardinal?). What really seemed unfair was that the text never got to speak for itself for long. Something had always to be happening. Usually, someone was dressing or undressing—there was a lot of that. Without exactly trampling the lines, Donnellan’s stage business frequently distracted me from what Ford’s characters were saying, despite my best efforts to listen. ’Twas a pity.
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