A truly romantic tragedy really well told

Review by Paul Nelson

ONE OF my favourite plays of all time, one which I must have seen almost a dozen times and which I never tire of seeing, is John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, a truly romantic tragedy.

It's a tragedy of forbidden love, incest, and it centres on Giovanni and his beautiful sister Annabella. The play contains some of the most breathtaking love verse in the English language.

It is also such a gory affair that on reflection it must have been all that blood letting - tongue and heart being cut out, throats slit, stabbings that go all the way through - that attracted me as a young boy. It was to me at quite a tender age, a comic, blood and thunder, then ultimately as a teenager, something to cry over. Nowadays it is something to savour.

I have never managed to get over its attraction and though in many cases I fear the play is performed for the prurient interest in its title, given the chance I try not to miss it.

Therefore, I almost hurried along to the Greenwich Playhouse to see its latest airing (produced by Alice De Sousa for Galleon Theatre Company, pictured) and I was not disappointed. The play stands up to the test of time as it always has (it was written circa 1627) and it is being given tender attention by its director.

Handsome Giovanni declares his love and sexual attraction to his sister Annabella. At first she is intimidated by the thought, but eventually she falls in love with him. However, she has to choose between three suitors, Soranzo, Grimaldi and Bergetto.

Soranzo has been having an affair with the wife of Richardetto, one Hippolita, and he has sworn to marry her should she become a widow. When it is learned that Richardetto has been drowned at sea, Soranzo reneges on his pledge and continues to pursue Annabella. Richardetto has not been lost at sea and disguised as a doctor returns to watch his wife with Soranzo.

When Annabella chooses Soranzo, Richardetto and the jealous Grimaldi join forces to kill him, but mistakenly kill the innocent Bergetto instead.

At the wedding feast, Hippolita, double-crossed by Soranzo's servant Vasques, drinks a cup of poisoned wine she had meant for Soranzo. The reason for Annabella's wedding becomes clear when Soranzo discovers she is pregnant by Giovanni. Soranzo plans to reveal this and get revenge at a splendid feast but to save Annabella's honour, Giovanni kills her, turns up at the feast with her heart in a casket, stabs Soranzo and is himself denied a public suicide and is killed by Soranzo's followers.

All this takes five acts and I doff my cap to director Bruce Jamieson as it is to his credit that he has boiled it all down into the present day acceptable length for modern playgoers.

Obviously there have been cuts, in both characters and scenes, but what is important is that the very essence of the play, its most salient points, are preserved. I took along an acquaintance who had never seen the play and there was little or nothing to explain in order to complete the evening.

What works startlingly well are the closing moments of the play when Ford's poetic imagery, moving in the extreme, is topped by the ironic throwaway nonchalance of Vasques, the ultimate put down of the sensitive Annabella, " 'Tis pity she's a whore."

This production boasts a very fine Annabella, a truly sinister Vasques thoroughly enjoying his own wickedness, a burning and furious Soranzo, a highly amusing Bergetto, the sexiest Hippolita I have ever seen and a saintly Bonaventura. The last part is usually played boringly by a bore, so I found this performance a revelation.

As with the old Jaguar car add, the production has grace and space, the space at Greenwich being more than cleverly filled. Unfortunately, it initially lacks the third part of the Jag advert, pace.

I'm afraid this is due to the absence of fire in the belly of Giovanni.

Instead of being aflame with zeal, passion, and tender love, he is almost indolent. One could not believe the child both he and Annabella desperately want as a symbol of their devotion is anything more than the by-product of a desultory screw, a lacklustre attempt to get benefit and a council flat. Annoyance and petulance rides on his brow instead of burning concern, desire and desolation at the hopeless and religiously wicked situation in which they find themselves.

This lack of Giovanni's pace, which starts off the play, drags the evening almost to a standstill, until the action and the necessary restlessness of the other characters kick-start the plot.

The production is attractively set in a stylised limbo of Christian overtones which is lit with burning Parma sunshine or serene moonlight. The incidental music has been chosen with such care that it actually plays a dramatic part in the play.

I would not ever knowingly miss a production of Ford's play, and I am heartily glad I didn't miss this one.

'Tis Pity She's A Whore by John Ford. Directed by Bruce Jamieson, Movement choreographed by Amanda Ling, Design by Peter Todd, Lighting designed by Robert Gooch WITH Adam Tabraham (Bonaventura), Ryan Clifford (Giovanni), Kevin Marchant (Vasques), Aaron Woodman (Grimaldi), Aden Cardy-Brown (Soranzo), Deirdra Whelan (Putana), Siren Turkesh (Annabella), Daniel Sung (Donado), James Levison (Bergetto), David Vaughan Knight (Richardetto), Eleanor Draper (Hippolita). Produced by Alice De Sousa for Galleon Theatre Company at Greenwich Playhouse, 118 Greenwich High Road, London SE10. Tickets 020 8858 9256.