Shocking 400-year-old tale of sibling incest given modern twist
He is thought to have modelled his play on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which had been a huge hit around 30 years earlier. But whereas in that play the problem is that the lovers come from two very different families, John Ford's lovers have the opposite problem: they are from the same family. "The play is really about bad boundaries."
The speaker is Declan Donnellan, co-founder of the brilliant Cheek by Jowl theatre company. Since their beginnings more than 30 years ago, Cheek by Jowl have won a worldwide following for their dramatic, eloquent and often modern-set renditions of classic dramas: they've also given early starts in their careers to the likes of Daniel Craig, Tom Hiddleston and Michael Sheen.
The company's major recent success has been 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. Cheek by Jowl's version, fresh from a successful run at London's Barbican, comes now to the newly refurbed Bristol Old Vic – the company's first visit to the grand old theatre – before a short world tour.
As Donnellan is explaining, 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.
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"The fact that it is brother and sister incest does make it different. 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." After all, Declan explains, we are programmed to run as far as possible from our families when we want to reproduce and make families of our own.
Giovanni and Annabella, as Declan sees it, simply can't face the idea of change. "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.
Cheek by Jowl have gone for a modern setting of this explosive and still – almost 400 years after its creation – shocking tragedy, complete with contemporary costumes, hip hop dance routines and more.