Kitsch 'n' sin drama

Cheek By Jowl offer us a meaty, postmodern <em>'Tis Pity She's a Whore </em>.

"Available for hire: Messrs Donnellan and Ormerod. Theatrical salvage and revamp. Classic plays stripped down, repaired and pimped up: Elizabethan and Jacobean a speciality. No job too rusty; contemporary, high-quality finish applied. We guarantee better than new!" So might read a small ad for Cheek By Jowl, the reclamation yard of the theatre high street. The latest Carolean shocker to get the CBJ look is John Ford's sensational 1633 play on incestuous passion 'Tis Pity She's A Whore. Think Romeo and Juliet, but siblings.

Director Declan Donnellan wields his auteur's cleaver in the manner of an expert butcher: out go the meandering intestines of sub-plot and character, in stay the prime cuts and the offal, quite literally: as the sibling-lovers reap the wages of sin, the play serves up a gory medley of organs and body parts.

The show begins with young Annabella (a mesmeric Lydia Wilson), sprawling across a blood-red duvet in her vampish bedroom. It's worth pausing on Nick Ormerod's decor. The posters that splatter Annabella's walls are the montage of a confused, romantic, adolescent brain: an Audrey Hepburn, a Jesus bearing his sacred heart, a True Blood print. The last strikes a particular chord: the TV show's evangelical fever, its whore-in-the-house-of-prayer mood is in the same key as the heavy blend of Catholicism and fetid sexual unrestraint in the play. Tacky iconography and illicit desire: this is kitsch 'n' sin drama.

With lurid and at times hilarious strokes, 'Tis Pity is pulled to the bleeding edge of the 21st century. This is a world of camcorders, rock music and laptops. Information is wheedled out of Annabella's nurse (unambiguously called Putana) by a strip-o-gram, whose posing pouch also dispenses cocaine. The jilt and would-be revenger Hippolita (a teary, grinning Suzanne Burden) sings mawkish, easy-listenin' karaoke at her ex Soranzo's wedding reception.

Under movement director Jane Gibson, the tautly physical cast dance, sing and bend into shapes that suggest Baroque tableaux and religious pietàs. They are present on stage much of the time, observing, muttering incantatory prayers or chorusing lines: a not so mute memo on the wild unreality of everything we observe.

Wilson is a grungy Madonna, a punk-gamine who gives the impression of something budding, something not yet fully formed. Chez Cheek by Jowl, it is she who invokes the rest of the characters, summoning them one by one, as she dances with a naive eroticism, if such a thing is possible. This taboo-smasher meets an exceptionally sticky end in Ford's play, as do all the other (predatory, pragmatic) female characters. The playwright's censure, however, is absent. He states their case and then, well, kebabs their body parts, but at the hands of venal machinators and unhinged aggressors, rather than of any overarching justice.

In this incarnation, Annabella is at the very core of our sympathies. As she grows up, distances herself from brother-lover Giovanni (Jack Gordon: urgent, psychotic) and makes accommodation with her lot and her new husband, we root for her. In a foreword to her murder we watch her tenderly folding improbably tiny clothes for her unborn child. She also gets to end the show. A post-mortem, post-modern presence, she reaches out to reclaim the heart that has been ripped out of her body - an event anticipated by her girly goofing round with a pink plastic Christ-heart that accessorizes her room.

Ormerod gives us glimpses of a further two rooms off the teen lair where all the action takes place. One is an antechamber that enables us to spy on details, like the one from Annabella and Soranzo's wedding. We're privy to Giovanni subtly reaching for the bride's hand, which she firmly denies him. The other en-suite is a bathroom. Here the scrapping suitors shower off after their cockfight, and Giovanni takes a casual post-coital piss. The clinical sanitaryware is to take on bloody, Tarantino hues as Putana and Annabella are gruesomely pulped.

Modish, meaty, this 'Tis Pity She's A Whore turns tricks in its grave. Not for the faint-hearted.

You can watch a short Sky Arts documentary about Cheek By Jowl here.

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Only Drake could wow the O2 by pointing out random audience members' clothing

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through.

On the last London night of his Boy Meets World tour (20 March), Drake doesn’t come on stage until 10pm, which is enough to kill off most gigs at the O2 Arena (hello, Bieber), as people are worried about getting the Tube home. The amount of rum and Coke in the room – a steaming, unrecognisable space with a false ceiling of globular lights and a stampeding crowd split in half by a fence – certainly helps keep the buzz. But who’d have thought that a man standing onstage diligently pointing at audience members and saying what they’re wearing (“You in the blue dress shirt with the ­lager!”) would constitute one of the most exciting nights the O2 has seen in a while?

“Tonight is not a show, not a concert, not about me,” says Drake, who runs an annual “Drake Night” in Toronto and once visited Drake University in Iowa.

So far, the world’s favourite rapper – his latest album, More Life, recently got 90 million streams on its first day of release on Apple Music alone – has had a shifting identity. His songs capture a new strain of emotionally literate but solipsistic hip-hop, which can feel intense or whiny depending on how you look at it. His offstage behaviour is Type-A rapper – he has been accused of throwing beer bottles at Chris Brown, he has been punched by Diddy and he has had altercations with Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Pusha T and Ludacris.

But Aubrey Drake Graham, the son of a white, Jewish mother and an African-American father who once played drums alongside Jerry Lee Lewis, does skits about his petulance on Saturday Night Live (see “Drake’s Beef”). Emotionally demonstrative, openly dysfunctional, a bit of a bruiser, with an ability to flit between a dozen styles of music while expressing a desire for crowd participation that borders on the needy . . . Could this man be the ­Michael Bublé of hip-hop?

Drake’s sprawling two-hour roadshow is held back from chaos by the force of his physical presence. Blunt-headed with muscular, sloping shoulders and mesmerising, nimble feet, he prowls the edge of the stage. He has had so many hits (and has so many guest stars tonight) that he is not interested in playing them all the way through. Instead, recalling Prince in the same venue ten years ago, the show becomes a series of medleys. With just a drummer and a synth player at the back of the stage, he demonstrates an invisible, physical control over the music, operating it like a string puppet, stopping or starting songs with the drop of a foot or the shrug of a shoulder, so they collapse in the middle and are gone.

It takes charisma to pull off abandoning hits halfway through. Pointing at people in the audience, real or imaginary, is a music hall thing. Bruce Dickinson and Metallica’s James Hetfield do it too. Amid a hokey message to follow your dreams, he recalls his time spent singing for $200 a night as a John Legend tribute act. Cue a perfect demonstration of Legend-style singing – before he suddenly sloughs off “all this bathrobe-and-candle-sexy acoustic Ed Sheeran shit”, while huge columns of flame engulf the stage.

Drake is still at his best with blue, slinky songs of alienation – “9”, “Over”, “Feel No Ways” and “Hotline Bling”, which doubles up as make-out music for the couples in the crowd. One pair of lovers, Drake establishes during one of his crowd surveys, have been together for ten years. “I can’t even make a relationship last ten days,” he laments. In 2012, he told the Guardian, “I’ve had too many girls to ever feel uncomfortable about the man that I am.” An old-school boast from a modern man.

The guest stars serve to highlight Drake’s variety, rather than shine on their own. Their songs, too, are started, suspended, chopped and screwed. Drake is more macho when there’s another guy onstage with him – doing “Successful”, with the literally named Trey Songz, or dueling with thefrenetic Skepta, who sounds so much tougher (maybe because he’s a Londoner). The two whirl around the stage like helicopter seeds.

Nicki Minaj, apparently Drake’s one-time lover, rises fembotishly from a hole in the stage and says in a London accent, “I want some fucking crumpets and tea.”

She adds, of her host, “This nigga single-handedly changed the game.” Minaj sings her song “Moment 4 Life”: “I call the shots, I am the umpire . . .” But she doesn’t really. Even her presence flares up quickly and is gone.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution