Play still has power to shock 400 years on
WHEN a theatre company produces sell-out shows in some of the world's most elite venues, it has to be seen as a coup when it decides to perform in Bristol.
In fact, since she first saw a Cheek By Jowl production back in 1994, Bristol Old Vic's artistic director Emma Stenning has been waiting for an opportunity to show off its talent to the city.
Now the much-lauded company will use Bristol for the starting point of a tour of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore; a 400-year-old tale of sibling incest.
Emma says: "I first came across Cheek by Jowl when I was at university and have been a long follower and admirer of their work.
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"They are a completely iconic theatre company. They had their first production in 1981 and over the last 30 years have continued at the forefront of theatre making.
"When we came to Bristol we said we were aiming to work with artists that can work in any theatres anywhere in the world and this is what we meant.
"It speaks volumes about the regard for the Bristol Old Vic that these exceptional artists want to come here."
Cheek by Jowl was formed back in 1981 by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod.
The company has performed in 301 cities in more than 40 countries, spanning six continents and has received numerous international awards.
Straight after directing their first ever feature film – Bel Ami featuring Robert Pattinson and Uma Thurman – Nick and Declan have found success once again with John Ford's shocking Jacobean tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, which follows the incestuous passion between brother and sister Giovanni and Annabella and its tragic – and bloody – consequences.
Emma says: "I saw the play at the Barbican earlier this year and it's very special. I always have high expectations when I see anything by Cheek by Jowl and they've never disappointed me yet.
"I think after doing a film Nick and Declan came back re-energised for the theatre and we're thrilled with this production, which feels so fresh – it's a very contemporary production of a classic play.
"I came out of the theatre and had a real 'wow' moment and really wanted others to see it."
As well as winning a worldwide following for their dramatic, eloquent and often modern-set renditions of classic dramas, Cheek by Jowl is also well known for giving early starts in their careers to the likes of Daniel Craig, Matthew Macfadyen and Michael Sheen.
"I think the vast number of people watch actors on TV screens and don't realise they learned their craft through Cheek by Jowl. They have a knack of spotting talent at a young age and really developing it. This play showcases some really great acting."
Declan himself explains that incest and its fallout is undoubtedly the engine that drives Ford's gripping, tense and ultimately violent drama: but it might not be all that it appears on the surface.
"The fact that it is brother and sister incest does make it different," he says. "We can all get worked up about incest when it is cross-generational and abusive, but Ford goes out of his way to make it clear that it's Annabella's decision as much as Giovanni's, that there is no sense of coercion.
"So in rehearsals we have been asking, where does this incest come from? Giovanni claims he's rebelling against the restrictive mores of the day: but I see his and Annabella's passion as not revolutionary, but reactionary."
Giovanni and Annabella, as Declan sees it, simply can't face the idea of change and of leaving the family nest.
"Meanwhile, there are people around them – such as Annabella's governess Putana – who should be playing a parental role but who act irresponsibly, by being complicit and by encouraging a kind of 'anything goes' mentality."
It all ends badly, and very bloodily, for Giovanni, Annabella, Putana and several other members of their licentious society. Despite this final settling of scores, Ford's play was rarely performed – and was frowned upon by critics when it was – for three centuries, because of its troubling content and Ford's apparently amoral stance.
Emma says: "It's amazing that something that is 400 years old still has the power to shock audiences and can have issues and circumstances still relevant today.
"This is a really stunning production, engrossing and grippingly performed. It's wholly contemporary as a play and I can't wait to show them the newly refurbished space.
"Bristol Old Vic is something of a mecca for theatre makers who want to come here and connect with the ghosts of more than 240 years – we know this will work so well and it's just so exciting to finally have Cheek by Jowl here."
'Tis Pity She's a Whore plays Bristol Old Vic from tonight to Saturday, November 3.