Reviews Off-Broadway Published 31 March 2012

'Tis Pity She's a Whore

BAM Harvey Theatre ⋄ 20th March - 31st March 2012

Cheek by Jowl tackle John Ford’s Jacobean shocker.

Richard Patterson

John Ford’s seventeenth century play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore has long been a source of controversy, its title and racy subject matter (brother-sister incest) offending the sensibilities of critics and audiences alike for nearly four centuries. Refreshingly, no attempt has been made to minimize the shock value of the play in this new production by British company Cheek by Jowl, which sets the entirety of the action in a young woman’s twenty-first century bedroom (replete with True Blood and Vampire Diaries posters, as well as others for Gone With the Wind and Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

The central story revolves around Annabella and her brother Giovanni, who are biologically star-crossed lovers whose blissful coitus is interrupted by Annabella’s hasty marriage to Soranzo, a suitor with whom she consents to enjoin after she finds herself pregnant with Giovanni’s child. There are plenty of other plot intricacies, but this is the main thrust of Ford’s often beautifully-written (if ultimately flawed) play, which, of course, ends tragically (as so many incest dramas do; see the films Ma Mere and Savage Grace for several chilling contemporary examples).

At first, it seems an asset that Cheek by Jowl, led by masterful director Declan Donnellan, have sought to blow some of the dust off Ford’s play. In the opening moments of the play, there’s a techno dance sequence that, if the rest of the production continued at the same pace (and within a clearly established contemporary context), may have set a thrilling marker for the remainder of the production. Unfortunately, what’s onstage here is for the most part rather a mishmash.

There’s plenty of shocking stuff here; at one point, a leather-thonged male exotic dancer enters, gives Annabella’s maid some cocaine to ingest and then proceeds to cut her face. For the most part, however, aside from a few thrilling moments, it’s unclear why the entirety of the play is taking place in a modern bedroom (or why plenty of other things are occurring).  I found myself more often distracted by the setting than informed by it, a particular shame since there are plenty of talented performers involved in the production, particularly Lydia Wilson, whose Annabella owes in part to hard-edged Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, and Jack Gordon, whose Giovanni is lively and thrillingly maniacal.

Cheek by Jowl, some of whose productions (Boris Godunov, Andromaque, Troilus and Cressida) have made thrilling light of classical texts by using thrilling modern twists, seems to be slipping as a company known for its reverence to the text of a play. Last year’s Macbeth, which replaced its three witches with a chorus of voices, let the air out of a thrilling play by replacing individual characters by a sense of collective madness. Now, with this ‘Tis Pity, I sense a similar tendency of style over substance that hopefully won’t become par for the company’s course.


Richard Patterson

A graduate of New York University with a degree in Dramatic Literature, Richard was deputy theatre editor at musicOMH.com from 2008-2011 and New York Editor of Exeunt from 2011-2016. He is excited to continue on as a contributor. With a penchant for Sondheim, the Bard, and Beckett, as well as for new writing, theatergoing highlights include Fiona Shaw's Winnie in "Happy Days," Derek Jacobi's Lear, Jonathan Pryce in "The Caretaker," and Chiwetel Ejiofor's Othello at the Donmar. Richard's criticism has been published in The Sondheim Review.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore Show Info


Directed by Declan Donnellan

Written by John Ford

Cast includes Suzanne Burden, David Collings, Ryan Ellsworth, Jimmy Fairhurst, Jack Gordon, Nyasha Hatendi, Jack Hawkins, Lizzie Hopley, Peter Moreton, David Mumeni, Laurence Spellman, Lydia Wilson

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Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 1 hr, 55 min (with no intermission)


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