No pity, only joy

In my three years at Warwick I have seen a lot of plays, and many of them have been good. But up until this May only three had ever occupied the ‘sub zero’ section of my cool wall: Clockheart Boy, Wonderland, and Under Milk Wood.

Now, however, there are four. ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore is, without resorting to hyperbole, the most mesmerising piece of theatre I have ever seen. Matt Stokoe’s ‘reinvention’ of John Ford’s Jacobean tragedy of incest, murder, marriage and honour, is truly amazing, combining Ford’s strong-willed verse with beautiful yet simple aesthetics and powerful performances. It’s not an easy ride, running at nearly three hours long and containing several scenes of prolific violence, but you come out breathless at its quality.

{{ quote The whole production is tight with splendid musical accompaniment and a pure artistic sensibility }}

Let’s start with the aesthetics. It was a great idea to set this ‘reinvention’ in Prohibition America. Not only does 1930s fashion always look good on the stage, but the play’s themes and key parts of the dialogue sit well with the Depression era, with its corruption, political intrigue, and social crisis.

Special credit must go to the lighting crew, who brought the place to life through a series of terrific effects. In the scene between Soranzo and Hippolita in the first act, the actors are cut in half by the deliberate use of shadow, taking you in the dark heart of a black-and-white thriller. The flickering red light on Annabella’s bed represents a heartbeat, the seedy neon lights of a Soho sex den, and her indecision between her incestuous brother and loveless husband. Throughout smoke and spotlights were employed to create a darker mood, and at one stage combined to imitate rainfall, adding pathos to an already melancholy scene.

Several performances within the ensemble must be singled out. Jeremy Smith truly inhabits Donado, bringing immense presence and gravitas to the role (even if he is the spitting image of Warren Clarke). Jack Churchill proves himself, once again, to be the next big thing in Warwick Drama. His Grimaldi is brooding, rebellious and taciturn, and his scenes smoking under the spotlights exude menace. Jay Saighal and Kwaku Mills-Bampoe provide much-needed comic relief, playing the fool and his servant with impeccable timing. And Dave Burnett is brilliant as one of the cold-hearted Bandits; the scene in which he has to gouge out the eyes of Annabella’s guardian (Claudia Massey) is one of the most chilling spectacles I have seen on stage.

The central performances, by Luke Karmali and Nikki Morland, begin very shakily, with the former spitting out every line with undue emphasis, and the latter simply appearing nervous. It is not until halfway through the first act that they start to come good, but boy do they come good, producing performances of both power and frailty which set the audience’s hearts alight.

The best performance, however, is Maria Askew as Hippolita. The moment she first sashays in Soranzo’s office she holds the audience in her grasp, carrying off that most film noir of scenes with all the fatal elegance of Marlene Dietrich. In the wedding scene she performs a highly sensual dance, dressed in an ornate black corset and feather boa; flitting from man to man she charms everyone who passes, including the audience. Even her drawn-out death scene, which sees her coughing up blood, is brilliantly acted with hubris and desperation. It may just be the best thing she’s ever done.

There are one or two criticisms. The play is very long, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the interval had come just a little sooner. The first act lasted nearly two hours, and considering all the stuff the audience had to absorb, a break a little sooner would have helped. The other difficulty was the scene changes. Often while stagehands were moving props around, some of the actors would be lit up and mouth exchanges silently. This would have worked a lot better had they actually spoke lines to cover any noise from the changes.

In the end, though, I just didn’t care. ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore is a full-blooded adrenaline rush of a play, masterfully directed by Matt Stokoe and packed to the rafters with enough twists and shocking scenes to cause even a seasoned cynic like myself to gasp in disbelief. The whole production is tight with splendid musical accompaniment and a pure artistic sensibility, and everyone involved should be very proud of the marvel that they have created here. A masterpiece for Matt Stokoe and a triumph for everybody else.


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