Tis Pity She’s a Whore, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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The Independent Culture

There is love and there is forbidden love. Then there is incest. And it doesn't come any more unsettling than observing the physical passions between a brother and sister played out live on stage. Today we know the genetic reasons why we don't like it but even 400 years ago when John Ford penned this classic of Jacobean theatre, it was taboo. "The leprosy of Lust that rots thy soul," Giovanni's tutor warns him. But he doesn't listen. He can't.

Instead he reveals his long-suppressed concupiscence towards his little sister Annabella who reciprocates. Together the couple embark on a smouldering nine-day affair that culminates in one of the most dysfunctional weddings in English literature followed by a phallic bloodbath.

The director Jonathan Munby and this exemplary cast have produced a brilliant, slick and utterly absorbing drama that is as thought-provoking and challenging as it is fun and beautiful to watch. Reversing recent fashion to exclude it, the comic subplot is back in the hapless exploits of rich-boy loser Bergetto and the wise and witty observations of the guardian Putana.

The setting for this twisted Romeo and Juliet is brought forward in time to 1960s Italy – an age of considerable social turmoil but which also brings peerless style (a Vespa scoots across the stage) and lounge-suited menace of the period.

The theme climaxes in the performance of Burt Bacharach's entirely prescient "Anyone Who Had a Heart" by the vengeful, sexy widow Hippolita, which is hilarious and disquieting in equal measure. While misogyny lies at the core of the play, the other big theme is the venal corruption of the Catholic Church. Annabella is a tragic pawn in a game played by rich and powerful men whose ambition, obsession and solipsism is masked by the conventions of courtly love and religious belief.

Tears and blood can cleanse and sometimes there is more sin in keeping a vow than breaking it. But in the end it is the woman – little more than a girl – who is slaughtered and blamed by the men responsible.

To 28 May (0113 213 7700, www.wyp.org.uk)

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