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28 February 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 4:01am

Kitsch ‘n’ sin drama

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

By Gina Allum

“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.

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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.