Theatre in Wales

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RWCMD- ‘Tis Pity She's a Whore , Bute Theatre Cardiff , July 7, 2005
This review first appeared in the Western Mail:


Incest, rape, flagellation, adultery, sadism, child abuse, masturbation, sodomy, it’s difficult to think of some sexual behaviour that we don’t find in Martin Houghton’s searing version of this classic Jacobean revenge tragedy.

And most of it is there in John Ford’s 1620s play: a brother and sister fall in love, she gets pregnant and her new husband finds out just after the wedding and, needless to say, is none too pleased. It could be the plot of any gritty In-yer-face play at the Royal Court or Channel 4 drama.

That it was written nearly four hundred years ago by a near-contemporary of Shakespeare makes it no less arresting, even if some of those extreme activities aren’t actually in the stage directions – Houghton is a director who not only finds the contemporary in the classic but one who pushes things to extremes to great effect.

The result in this case is a riveting Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama production that makes every scene startling – and where sex permeates every moment.

For the incestuous siblings, sex is tender and part of being in love, delicately handled, with a risky nude scene reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, but their relationship is the only one in this violent world that is about love: for the rest it’s lust and power.

And this, of course, is the irony of the piece, emphasised by Houghton’s insistence that every other character apart from the brother and sister is in some way corrupt. Their father is having an affair with her double-dealing governess, a churchman persistently fondles his young niece, the new husband rips the nightdress off the back of his new bride and beats her mercilessly, even the priest takes some pleasure in whipping his student for his sins, little of which is explicit, I think, in the text.

But we see this story of sexual abuse through modern eyes and the role of the Catholic church throughout the ages, but more manifestly in recent times, colours our view of a Jacobean society run by men where everyone is on the make and feels unconstrained by any moral inhibitions – only the lovers are innocent in this tale

Houghton’s treatment will doubtless be controversial but it makes for electric theatre, an unrelenting expose of male brutality, where even the women who try and play their game of duplicity end up losers – by the last act every female character has either been murdered, blinded or, in one case, denied any life by being sent to a nunnery.

Does the fact that the only nudity we see is of women, and noticeably attractive young women, compromise this feminist-flavoured critique of abusive patriarchy ? That’s another issue in a production that opens itself out to debate – and a production that also challenges its young cast in so many ways.

As Martin Houghton says, if they can handle this they can handle anything – and this amazing cast handles it extremely well, not only offering great clarity with a plot that is hardly straightforward but a commitment to depicting the violent world of Jacobean society, where passion is more often spent in violent lust than in love, with breathtaking bravery. If Houghton’s direction releases the text from the page with awesome visceral immediacy, then the performances in general do his vision great justice.

And in a production where there is more violence, sex and abuse than the usual revenge tragedy, the staging is crucial – a semi-translucent screen allows for some subtlety but even the gory climax, as the brother holds aloft the heart of his beloved sister and we see her suspended, naked, her torso ripped open, even this is done so there isn’t even the hint of a giggle from the stunned audience who have witnessed this affecting drama from close proximity in a Bute Theatre where we are so close to the action we feel we can smell the testosterone, sweat and semen.

Reviewed by: David Adams

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