Theatre: 'Tis Pity She's a Whore Lyric Studio, London

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The Independent Culture
'Even the grotesque climax of the final scene is wrecked by the pale pink blob that passes for Annabella's torn-out heart'

You can see why directors are attracted by John Ford: he offers powerful emotions, striking images, shocking violence. In synopsis, his stuff always sounds terrific. 'Tis Pity She's a Whore looks like a particularly good bet, with brother-sister incest as its central theme and a final scene involving one of the lovers brandishing the other's bloody heart at their persecutors. Even his immediate predecessors, Webster and Tourneur, don't go quite this far. How can you go wrong?

Very easily, as it happens. The fact is, Ford may be good at bold outlines, but he tends to fall off a bit when it comes to filling in the details. Some critics have been impressed by the cool, measured language he uses to speak of violent passions, but in performance what you notice is the lack of anything to charm the ear, while the plotting can often seem ragged and confused. For Ford to work on stage, a director needs some very clear ideas of what is going on, and a strong, disciplined cast to inject some energy and pace into plays that can otherwise become turgid and soporific.

Yvonne Brewster, who directs this staging for Talawa Theatre Company, doesn't have either of these things. Her programme note offers some modern pieties about "the damning attitude towards women in the play", and its refusal to condemn Giovanni for finally murdering his sister; but that's the closest she gets to an insight. The production itself gives little clue as to where your sympathies should lie - unless you count the Biblical warnings against incest that are written on most of the available spaces of costume and set. With the actors apparently unfocused and unsure of what they're doing, things very quickly get bogged down.

The cast does have your sympathy, though, handicapped as they are by their costumes - nobody seems to have come to terms with the tassels, capes and pointy-toed shoes, and there's an awful lot of fiddling around with unmanageable bits of drapery in an effort to keep the action flowing smoothly. It's particularly unfortunate that the various fight scenes involve movement derived from the dance-based martial arts capoeira and kalaripayatt: the gulf between the pirouetting grace attempted here and the ungainliness of the rest of the performance is distressing.

To some extent, given the difficulties Ford presents, the lack of overall momentum is understandable; but Brewster even wastes the opportunities that are handed to her on a plate. Tension is fatally undermined throughout by the lack of any real sense of danger in the relationship between Giovanni and Annabella (Stephen Persaud and Ginny Holder). And even the grotesque climax of the final scene, with the traditional high body-count of 17th- century tragedy, is wrecked by the laughable pale pink blob that passes for Annabella's torn-out heart - anatomical correctness isn't necessarily desirable here, but a prop that at least hinted at the appalling nature of what's just taken place would be useful.

Among all this mess, only Don Warrington preserves much dignity, as the murderous servant Vasques - a performance of such weight and vocal power that in other circumstances he'd be in danger of unbalancing the action. Here, it's hard to feel that there's anything to unbalance.

n To 18 Nov. Booking: 0181-741 2311

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