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.

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times