‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore @ Liverpool Everyman


An initial glance through the cast list of Chris Meade’s new ‘Tis Pity at the Liverpool Everyman betrayed from the start that this was a severely pared-down affair. Donado, Grimaldi, Bergetto, Poggio, Richardetto and Philotis were all cut, along with their subplots. What remained was a tightly-focussed domestic drama, drawing on the grand Liverpool tradition of emotional kitchen-sink conflict, that appropriated Ford’s play for a very particular agenda.

Meade’s focus was on the objectification of women, as embodied primarily in Matti Houghton’s Annabella. The production began with Annabella dressing in her bedroom, a circular pit in the middle of the wide stage with a bed that acted as dramatic locus for the first half. As she dressed, a priest stood on a raised level, reciting Renaissance strictures for the silencing of women in church. Where the original text opens with Giovanni’s lust and the masculine disputation of religious law, here the first spoken action was Putana and Annabella’s discussion of the latter’s various suitors, conducted in the privacy of her bedroom. In its framing, then, we were immediately inducted into Annabella’s perception of her story.

This focus was accentuated through the prioritisation of family. Following the priest’s prologue, a further interpolated scene saw Putana drag Annabella out of her bedroom to greet her brother, newly arrived from years abroad under the tutelage of Friar Bonaventura. Their lust became an effect of their reintroduction to one another as adults, discovering each other afresh as lovers. Beaumont and Fletcher fans will note the resonance with A King and No King; here, it centred the action squarely in a domestic sphere, love becoming a perversion of family values. This perversion was hinted at as Paul McCleary’s Florio lit candles at the shrine of his dead wife, a visual presence for much of the play, before accepting a bulging suitcase from Soranzo in advance of his parental consent.

The most powerful aspect of this production came from the fantastic relationship between Hugh Skinner’s Giovanni and Houghton’s Annabella. In their first full interaction, circling the stage holding hands and blushing in each other’s company, the two perfectly evoked the awkwardness of close sibling bonds. The key scene of mutual admission, performed on their knees as they pleaded and wept, was filled with desperation and, ultimately, relief. Immediately following, they deliberately broke a “rule” of the production’s staging by stepping directly onto the bed in the central pit, rather than entering the bedroom by its “door”; a simple yet powerful gesture that highlighted the transition. Yet even as lovers, they retained the quirky tics of sibling intimacy – imploring him not to leave, Annabella kissed Giovanni’s cheek, then knee, then hands, curling up against him in persuasive familiarity. The naturalness of their actions, within the oppressively domestic setting, was agonising.

Skinner’s Giovanni was animated throughout, though the performance emphasised the self-absorbedness of the character rather than any nobility. Donning a red scarf immediately after the seduction, his casual mocking of his sister already felt overly presumptive. At his moment of triumph before receiving Annabella’s letter, he was discovered lounging with a bottle of whisky, lost in alcohol and his own self-justifying rhetoric. It was this that he developed throughout the play, gradually becoming more enamoured with the love of the extremity of the situation. Houghton’s wonderful Annabella, meanwhile, became more and more practical even as her belly gradually swelled, forsaken by a brother who she spent almost no time with following the interval and a husband who imprisoned her in the hollow pit, now acting as a cell.

The abuse to which she was subjected became increasingly horrific. Kevin Harvey’s Bonaventura was too submissive throughout, preaching his hellfire and damnation to Giovanni in a gentle and uncertain plea; but when entering Annabella’s bedroom, he took on a far sterner aspect. In rage and frustration she flung herself at him; at which he grabbed her and threw her onto her bed, before sitting next to her and beginning a sermon which acted as psychological torture. Immediately following the interval, the now heavily pregnant woman was thrown about by Nicholas Shaw’s slick Soranzo, dragged by her hair and threatened with a knife; her terrified but brave resistance all the more effective as a result.

The retention of the Hippolita subplot allowed the theme of abuse of women to continue, this time in a crueller and more dismissive light. Emily Pithon made the most of her short stage time to create a righteously bitter woman who was far too easily ignored by the smug Soranzo. Fittingly, her interruption of the wedding – a claustrophobically small house reception – was given full vent as the climax of the first half. Appearing at the top of the stairs leading up through the auditorium, wearing a blue dress and veil, she performed a full song to recorded music, borrowing lyrics from Aphra Behn’s The Golden Age including the repeated refrain “Trembling and blushing are not marks of shame.” Even at her moment of screaming death, however, Soranzo once more turned away, refusing to look on the woman he had ruined. Only Vasquez stared unblinkingly at his victim.

Ken Bradshaw’s Irish Vasquez stood out throughout, a formal and dedicated servant to his master, yet one with a mobile and defiant personality of his own, especially as he rescued Annabella from her beating. Waiting for his moment, he grabbed and wrestled with Soranzo, staring into his eyes and calming him with the force of his gaze. The close relationship between the two men was powerfully evoked, Soranzo allowing Vasquez to rule him at all stages, knowing that the servant’s loyalty to the master was unimpeachable.

As the play progressed, the extent of Vasquez’s audacity slowly manifested itself. Tempting Eileen O’Brien’s elderly Putana into a chair, he plied her with whisky until (to a collective intake of breath from the audience) she finally revealed the lovers’ secret. O’Brien’s natural performance created a powerful investment in the character, which received its pay-off as Vasquez left the room, stripped off his shirt, took off his belt and then re-entered, whipping the belt around her neck and forcing her painfully offstage. We overheard the brutal beating accorded to the woman, before Vasquez re-entered, his shirt covered in blood, in yet one more iteration of male subjugation of women.

The play was not without his humour. Shaw was particularly adept at comic timing, drawing huge laughs with both his anticlimactic “Thanks, lovely virgin” following Hippolita’s long and tremulous performance, and his all-too-obvious “We must break up this mirth” after her death. Skinner, too, found humour in Giovanni’s self-indulgent manner, and the scene in which Annabella skilfully countered Soranzo’s proposals was extremely effective, Giovanni’s off-stage interjections meshing perfectly with the quick ripostes between the others. This easy rapport was perhaps in no small part engendered by the production’s use of an ensemble, who were performing in rep an Anthology of new works alongside this play. Certainly the quick back-and-forth between brother and sister, and master and servant, captured the familiarity that these relationships demanded.

The final murder of Annabella was, disappointingly, played out on the high raised level, thus distancing the character in which we were most invested just at the climactic moment, and diminishing somewhat the effectiveness of this moment. The pay-off came a minute later, however, as Giovanni crashed into the main party half-naked and dripping in blood. The intrusion of this horrific figure of revenge tragedy into the banal domestic setting of the production was suitably incongruous, stunning the assembled family and initiating a flurry of well-choreographed action. As both Soranzo and Giovanni fell into the pit which had once formed Annabella’s bedroom, we were once more reminded of the magnetic effect of lust on these young men. Yet both died in triumph; and it was Putana who was led off, frail and shaking, to execution, while Vasquez strode magnificently offstage to glorious banishment. The final gesture of the first half had been Vasquez covering up  – and silencing – Hippolita’s body; the final gesture of the second was a flunky casually throwing Annabella’s heart to one side as he prepared Giovanni’s body for display. The Cardinal’s final words, “Tis pity she’s a whore”, perfectly balanced the priest’s earlier instructions for women to be silent; here, the silence of the play’s wounded women screamed far louder than words.


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