'Tis Pity She's A Whore | Malthouse TheatreLeft - Chris Ryan. Cover - Benedict Samuel and Elizabeth Nabben. Photos - Jeff Busby.

Giovanni
and Annabella are lovers. They are also brother and sister. A steamy image of the two bound to one another has been seen over most of Melbourne as promotion for the Malthouse Theatre’s first production for 2011, an adaptation of the 1633 play by John Ford; ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. The play is also Director Marion Potts’ first production as Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre, having taken over from Michael Kantor after his six years as head of the company. Her first show has understandably caused quite a bit of interest and perhaps an unfair amount of expectation.

Annabella (Elizabeth Nabben) has many suitors, in particular the man of her father’s choice, the seemingly suitable Soranzo (John Adam). Annabella rejects all interest, given that her heart belongs to her brother Giovanni (Benedict Samuel) and his to her. Before long Annabella is with child, Giovanni’s to be exact, and so she agrees to marry Soranzo in haste as a cover up. Soranzo of course finds out the truth, but after beating Annabella up decides he’ll keep her all the same. Giovanni, consumed by jealousy and heartache, goes on a killing spree. The body count, predictably, is high.

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore was once controversial – for its theme of incest, but also because of Ford’s sympathetic treatment of it. These days however, though incest is still rather taboo, its depiction and exploration, along with that of violence, murder and corruption, is more common, far less shocking, and our idea of what constitutes right and wrong, less absolute.

Presumably in an effort to make this play work for a modern audience, Potts has changed its form. As in other recent productions of this work, many of the characters have been omitted in order to concentrate on the love story between Annabella and Giovanni, but Potts has also replaced the original comic subplot with a single character called B (Chris Ryan). He is a comic of sorts, but also a gum chewing, sex-hungry, womanising male who boasts to the audience about his latest conquests and how to decipher sexually suggestive text messages. Most importantly, he is the modern version of the domineering male in the Elizabethan world of Ford’s original play. Through him, Potts has created a second world – that of the present. In contrasting and overlapping the modern world, with which we identify, with that of the Elizabethan, it perhaps allow the themes and characters in the original text to have a greater, albeit rather pallid, affect on its audience.

The creation of these two worlds is brought to life by Anna Cordingley’s multi-tiered set. The bottom level is a modern day underground. There are large wooden crates covered in graffiti, and the sound designer is placed rather obviously to the side. It is in appearance more of a working area than a set or performance space, and home to B, it is also apparently that of reality.

On the level above is the parlour of Giovanni and Annabella. The furniture is ornate but decidedly cardboard like, resembling that from an Alice In Wonderland picture book. They and the large fresco on the back wall, which is eventually peeled back by B himself to reveal nothing but scaffolding, are just a few of the suggestions that the story from this world, like B’s crude puppet show at the beginning of the play, is a fantasy, perhaps even a figment of his imagination. The characters on this level, though clothed in modern attire, speak in more traditional Elizabethan language and the action, like the set, is stylised and exaggerated. There is for instance, a most memorable scene in which the always wonderful Alison Whyte, as Hippolita, dances seductively on top of the dining table, releasing a flurry of red rose petals from her cleavage, before dying in a rather spectacular fashion.

Despite what the set may try to achieve, it quite often engulfs the action and a great deal of the emotion that is evident in the original text. Whilst the performances are sound enough, with the exception of the overly commanding Soranzo, they tend to get lost amidst their surroundings, as do some of their lines.

The scenes in which Giovanni and Annabella feature are tender and romantic and in some instances very moving, but these moments are few and far between. A great deal of the mood in this play is instead created by the very emotive singing voice of Julia County and her occasional duets with Nabben, to the music of Andree Greenwell. County’s placement on the third level of the set and her spectacular dress gives her an ethereal quality and one that is quite a contrast to the exaggerated sound effects created by Jethro Woodward.

A play does not need to be full of sex, nudity or violence to be enthralling but this production is rather under whelming. In style however it is certainly different to anything that’s been about of late and suggests that there’s some very interesting theatre to come from Potts in the future.


Malthouse Theatre presents
'Tis Pity She's A Whore
by John Ford

Adapted & Directed by Marion Potts

Venue: Malthouse Theatre | The CUB Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street Southbank, VIC
Dates: February 11 - March 5, 2011
Duration: 100 minutes (no interval)
Bookings: 03 9685 5111