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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism