Declan Donnellan has directed theater, opera, ballet, and film, all of which come into play in his dynamic revival of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a wonderful production that has been choreographed and timed down to the last second. By making the appropriate cuts to the original text, he has streamlined the play so that it focuses only on its central relationship, the love affair between Giovanni (Jack Gordon) and his sister Annabella (Lydia Wilson); it is a Romeo and Juliet in which “the problem is no longer that the lovers are from different families, the problem is now that they’re from the same one.”
Throughout ‘Tis Pity, we never leave Annabella’s room, which is wallpapered with posters ranging from the Virgin Mary to True Blood. Her bed, with its incestuous sheets, acts as a reminder of the transgression that has condemned each character to their fate. The whole thing is a kind of manic dream, and Mr. Donnellan seems to have externalized much of what is going on in the minds of his characters: the actors double as a Greek chorus, reacting to scenes they are not written into, while Annabella emerges ghost-like onstage when her suitors praise her beauty and Hippolita (Suzanne Burden) reappears after her death, beaming as she leaps around the stage, dancing to wild carnival music. Think Baz Luhrmann by way of David Lynch.
John Ford is known for his bloodbaths—one writer recently wrote, “[he] never met a character he didn’t want to kill”—but there was a choice made here to pare down the number of deaths, thereby avoiding the exhaustion we might feel at his excessive violence. Instead, each moment comes as a shock; there was a collective gasp in the theater when, after finding out about the bastard child his wife was carrying, Annabella’s husband Soranzo (Jack Hawkins) walked calmly to the closet to grab a wire hanger. Then there is the haunting scene when Giovanni appears with his sister’s heart in his hands, blood streaked across his face. By reducing the amount of violence, Mr. Donnellan has increased its power to affect us.
Lest it seem that this ‘Tis Pity is all spectacle, however, it should be noted that the success of the production is also hinged on Ms. Wilson and Mr. Gordon’s terrific performances. There is an honesty to their sexuality so truthful and so warmly familiar that we wonder why their love has to suffer such damnation. True, they are brother and sister, but with happiness so hard to come by, we wish they could just be left alone; perhaps because of the strength of the actors, I had more sympathy for these star-crossed lovers than I’ve ever had for their more conventional kindred spirits Romeo and Juliet.