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'Tis Pity She's a Whore: Theater Review

Hedydd Dylan Laurence Spellman Gina Bramhill N Sanderson - P 2013
Manuel Harlan

The Bottom Line

High-concept mounting of textbook classic applies a cool vision to the white-hot revenge melodrama, sometimes wanting in invention amidst its hoary busyness but finding renewed vigor in the big scenes.

Venue

Freud Playhouse, UCLA (runs through Jan. 12)

Cast

Gina Bramhill, Orlando James, Luarence Spellman, Gyuri Sarossy, Hedydd Dylan, Nicola Sanderson, Jonathan Livingstone, Ryan Ellsworth, David Collings, Philip Cairns, Jimmy Fairhurst, Peter Moreton

Director

Declan Donnellan

Co-director

Owen Horsley

Playwright

John Ford

John Ford's notorious incest tragedy of the 17th century is given a contemporary-minded staging at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

In the beginning is the bed. Upon it, a young girl with earbuds, noodling at a laptop. The wall behind her is festooned with adolescent posters, ranging from True Blood to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to one in French for Tennessee WilliamsSweet Bird of Youth (another play whose action commences with a woman relegated to her bed). If these contemporary affectations sound like a distraction from a Jacobean shocker from the early 17th century, this viewer certainly found it so. Yet this durable if all-too-mortal text by John Ford, a bare generation younger than Shakespeare, perhaps unplayable any longer as grisly melodrama (perhaps even when it was new), finds many a tawdry illumination against this determinedly stylized production by the august Cheek by Jowl company from Blighty. The bed remains center stage throughout.

Famously plunging headlong into still sensationalist sibling incest, proto-Byronic hero Giovanni (Orlando James) seduces his sister Annabella (Gina Bramhill) and schemes that she should marry to provide a cover for their continuing love. As suitors battle competitively for her hand, Annabella wants none of them until she discovers herself pregnant. Her father’s choice Soranzo (Gyuri Sarossy) has baggage of his own, a jilted widow Hippolita (Hedydd Dylan), who enlists Soranzo’s calculating servant Vasques (Laurence Spellman) in her planned vengeance at their wedding celebration.

As riddled as this may be with mutilation, poisoning, attempted abortion, dismemberment, assassins disguised as male strippers and several varieties of sexual deceptions, Cheek by Jowl has actually excised a large subplot with an additional parallel revenge plot involving Hippolyta’s husband Richardetto, incidentally depriving the show of the final curtain line that pronounces its memorable title, an observation by the deleted character. The action is thereby compressed into two hours without intermission.

Director and company co-founder Declan Donnellan (who also helmed last year’s somewhat neglected film of De Maupassant’s Bel Ami) instead opts for choreographed stage movements and tableaux and a disassociated declamatory rhetorical style that deliberately flattens the otherwise vivid characterizations, although every player is well versed in the speech cadences and their diction carries pristinely without amplification. (Among the company’s alumni are Daniel Craig and Michael Sheen.) Donnellan first mounted a modern dress version of the play in 1980, shortly before Cheek by Jowl formed, and many of its apparently brighter theatrical ideas seem at this date shopworn, somewhat antique and orthodox. Even so, it gains in power as the outrages mount, and ultimately its determination to stubbornly resist the tide of true conviction allows the climaxes some of the scabrous shock of this potboiler to strike afresh.

More often admired than produced (and it makes a welcome appearance as part of the resurrection of UCLA Live’s indispensable International Theatre programming), Ford’s play boasts passages of blunt poetical language and a ruthless amorality even in its obligatory nods to conventional graces.

Venue: Freud Playhouse, UCLA (runs through Jan. 12)

Cast: Gina Bramhill, Orlando James, Luarence Spellman, Gyuri Sarossy, Hedydd Dylan, Nicola Sanderson, Jonathan Livingstone, Ryan Ellsworth, David Collings, Philip Cairns, Jimmy Fairhurst, Peter Moreton

Director: Declan Donnellan

Co-director: Owen Horsley

Associate and movement director: Jane Gibson

Playwright: John Ford

Set & costume designer: Nick Ormerod

Lighting designer: Judith Greenwood

Music & sound designer: Nick Powell

A Cheek by Jowl production presented by UCLA Live