A large bed dominates the set for Declan Donnellan’s thrilling Cheek by Jowl revival of ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, just as it dominates the thinking of almost everyone in the play. That bed and what happens in it is at the centre of John Ford’s tragedy, a latecomer to the gory Jacobean-Caroline canon (published in 1633) and pretty ripe even by the standards of the genre. It’s the bed of Annabella, whose virginity is a prized commodity in the marriage market, sought after by many suitors who, in Donnellan’s production, lurk in every corner of the room. But while they queue for marriage, her brother Giovanni simply opens the bedroom door.
The challenge for any production is to avoid presenting incest as a shock tactic. Donnellan manages this brilliantly, giving the whole piece a modern, gothic spin and playing it at a lick that conveys the nightmarish trajectory of the action. The atmosphere is intensely claustrophobic. Here we never move outside Annabella’s bedroom, which with its blood red sheets and film posters suggests that, while she may be innocent, she is also sexually awakened enough to fantasise. But closeted up, in a culture where the notion of women as Madonna or whore runs deep, she turns to her brother. Donnellan makes the siblings’ relationship seem terrible, yet tender and, above all, comprehensible: the tragic endgame of a decadent, hypocritical society.
Lydia Wilson has a gamine beauty and her Annabella is half-aware of her power: she pitches beautifully the mix of innocence, sensuality and curiosity. Jack Gordon’s Giovanni is turbulent with mixed emotions: desire, guilt and defensiveness turn him into a dangerous mess as Annabella is finally married off.
As with Joe Hill-Gibbins’ The Changeling at the Young Vic, there is an unhinged feel to the show. It is modern dress, but played as a heightened version of reality. The restless ensemble propels the story forward: while Giovanni murders his sister, the company dances a manic tarantella. The whole thing careers to a horrified halt as he staggers between the dancers to sit on the bed, clutching his sister’s heart.