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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge