Review of Malthouse Theatre’s production of “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”

Samuel Benedict and Elizabeth Nabben in "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" Source: http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com/2011/02/review-tis-pity-shes-whore.html

I decided to do my research before I saw this performance, I found a plot synopsis and looked into the theatre style a little. I’m very glad I did. This play, written by John Ford, had many characters, and each of these characters seemed to want to get revenge on someone, many secrets, a lot of disguise and multiple deaths, so without doing my research I would have been pretty lost. I found out that this play was classified as a revenge tragedy of the Jacobean era and that these are described as having had an “unapologetic theatricality” and an ability to expose a “godless world in which human passion flamed out and extinguished itself in a materialistic, cynical and bloodily hierarchical society” (http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com/2011/02/review-tis-pity-shes-whore.html) The term Jacobean revenge tragedy  “became synonymous with byzantine artifice, elaborate depravity and extreme violence”( http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/theatre/tis-pity-shes-a-whore-20110217-1ay3d.html)  Thankfully, as a result of looking into it, I was able to understand and focus on different aspects of the performance and found, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The basic plot was centred around Giovanni (Benedict Samuel) and Annabella (Elizabeth Nabben),  brother and sister, and their forbidden love for one another. Annabella is very beautiful and as such is courted by several men, but when her brother confesses his love for her, she, impressed by his manliness reciprocates the love and they decide to consummate it. Meanwhile, an older woman Hippolita (Alison Whyte) is conned by one of Annabella’s young suitors Soranzo (John Adam) into sending her husband off to die so that they could be together. He then leaves her, and she and his servant Vasquez plan to get revenge. At the same time as Annabella and her brother are falling deeply in love she is being urged into marriage, a plan she tries to derail. This falls apart for her however, when she realises she is pregnant and quickly marries Soranzo. At their wedding Hippolita arrives in mask, shows herself and then has a toast with Soranzo, getting  him to take a sip of his poisoned wine. However, it is then revealed that Vasquez had been loyal to his master all along and gave Hippolita the poisoned wine and she then dies quite spectacularly. Soranzo then finds out that Annabella is pregnant and gets Vasques to find out who the father is by manipulating it out of Annabella’s governess. Giovanni then visits Annabella and kills her, as he would rather her die by his hand than by Soranzo’s. He goes into the parlour where Florio (A & G’s father), Vasques and Soranzo are sitting, holding Annabella’s heart and telling them all about his sins. Florio dies immediately, Giovanni then stabs Soranzo, is stabbed by Vasques and stabs Vasques. Basically, the whole play ends with extreme bloodshed and the line (in this performance spoken by a character added into Malthouse’s adaption), “who could not say, ‘tis pity she’s a whore?”

 The “unapologetic theatricality” was definitely present in this performance. I thought the set design was magnificent. It has 3 levels, the bottom level was made up of two shipping containers positioned stage left and centre and a slightly raised platform stage right where technology and sound equipment and DJ were set up. The outside of the containers and the platform were covered with colourful graffiti, reminding one of an underground nightclub or something of the like. The insides of the containers were covered with tin foil which reflected light well and glimmered metallically. There was definitely a sense of a forbidden world cloaked in secret, set off largely by the dark and the DJ making many psychedelic sounds reverberate around the theatre. The second level was constructed out of some kind of crate. Lining the walls and ceiling inside the crate was some kind of sheet covered in paintings that looked like, from my limited knowledge of art, they came from renaissance period. There were many religious allusions in the paintings and angels and much chaos. The furniture was ostentatious, the trimmings reminding me of those I saw when I looked at the Baroque period. Curiously, however, the furniture looked very fake, almost like cardboard cut-outs that gave a sense of the grandeur of this level being all appearance and this reminded me somewhat of a doll’s house. The top level was merely the roof of the second level, but on it was placed a beautiful piano with a Parisian scenery decoration and for much of the time there was a character named “Angel” (Julia County) up there who alternated between walking around, playing piano and singing.

 A lot of this can be seen in this very interesting video of the bump in of the set:

http://www.youtube.com/user/malthousetheatre#p/u/12/sWDoleLHBEA

Discussing afterwards, a few of us thought the levels might represent hell, earth and heaven. The bottom as I said had a very sort of underground shady feel. This was represented by the not only by the scenery, but the DJ’s soundscape and the fact the DJ had pornography playing on a laptop by his desk throughout the whole performance. The character down on this level was named B, he was an addition to the play by the artistic director Marion Potts, and he represented a fairly typical young Australian man, consumed with thoughts of conquests and women in general. He began talking in this vulgar, one-dimensional manner but he changed throughout, at one point in the play he began talking about ways someone could die and about night terrors he’s been having, ending the monologue on a frightening note by screaming at the audience. In his next scene he walked on and played out a scene that was cut from the original script with puppets, his language suddenly matching that of the rest of the script. His character became more immoral and dangerous throughout. In one scene he just looked on as he saw Soranzo brutally beating Annabella with no reaction at all. In the final scene of the play he took a seat stage left in the second level, donning a frightening clown mask and sitting immobile. It appeared none of the other characters in the scene could see him and after the horrific deaths, he took off his mask and walked around the space removing jewellery, watches and other finery from the dead men. And he was the one that spoke the resounding last line found in the title. The second level was the affluent family, they were all dressed in modern clothes but they were expensive looking and they spoke formally. It was, however, these people with their outward appearance of refinement that committed all the terrible crimes. To me this represented the falsity of society and that the removal of the gold after death was a way of unmasking them, finally truly showing their colours. Finally, at the top level was the “angel”, she was always lit a little making her a constant presence. She was most well-lit when Annabella was onstage and sung beautifully in many of Annabella’s scenes, often doing duets with Annabella. As the play progressed she slowly moved down the levels suggesting that she was becoming degraded as the other characters became more and more embroiled in corruption.

 I really loved the soundscape of this play as well. Julia County’s beautiful operatic voice and piano playing was juxtaposed entirely with heavy grating techno noises. This was very effective in that it was just so awful for the audience, it really intensified powerful moments and further exposed that contrast between heaven and hell. It was also interesting because the DJ was there from the moment the audience entered the room and Angel was up there as soon as the play began, and even though neither of them spoke a word, they had this omnipresence that was so powerful in conjunction with the music they were making.

 The lighting of this piece was my favourite part though. I would love nothing more to get my hands on that lighting system and have a play. I believe that there was about ten rigs and the Merlin theatre is shaped like this:

 

And there were lights all along those walls that I’ve drawn in black. I believe they were mostly fresnels, with some spotlighting. The lighting has to be very intricate due the complicated nature of the set which had to have different sections lit at different times. In the shipping containers on the bottom levels there were globes from the ceiling in addition to the other lights which gave a very cool shimmery effect due to the tin foil lining the containers.

Some lighting effects I particularly enjoyed were:

–          As seen in the picture. I’m not sure exactly how this effect was created, I think it may have been a focused spotlight or something of the like but the shadow was really eerie, it gave a very exaggerated feel to B’s movements and I really got a sense of the darkness in his character.

 –          Another was toward the end of the play. Angel had moved her way down through the set and was now on the bottom level. The audience couldn’t see her because she was behind the set but there must have been a source of light behind there as she walked into it and her shadow was thrown up on the wall stage right. It was at a moment of great sorrow for Annabella and I have no idea what it represented but it was the omnipresence of her that really stood out me. Visually it was very striking.

–          In the final scene of great violence a red gel came through on two of the fresnels on the wall at the back of the room, somehow they were used in such a way that they were not strong enough to bathe the whole room in a red glow but for it to show up on the actors’ skin adding to the fake blood that was on their bodies already and really creating a powerful force of anger.

 In terms of actors, I really enjoyed the actor Chris Ryan’s performance. He was the actor who played B and I felt his character development and the subtleties that lead the audience to see his darkness followed by the moments when he displayed it freely were really well acted. He began and ended the play and he was drew the audience’s attention throughout  with his strong presence and very strange personality. I still don’t fully understand what he represented in a larger sense but I don’t think it was supposed to be crystal clear, rather for the audience to be intrigued to the point of wanting to know why he was added and what he meant.

I really did like this play. As much as I have enjoyed scaled back and minimalistic plays, it was nice to go and see a play that was larger than life, full of drama and basically a feast for the brain and senses. I think perhaps the one part where it missed the mark was in modernising it they seemed to be trying to get the themes to fit a modern-day world. I don’t really see the theme of the degradation of society as all that relevant today but nonetheless I enjoyed learning about society from another time.

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