“Incest and murder have so strangely met”

LUCY FARLEY reviews ‘‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’, showing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is without a doubt the grown up and sexy sister of the Globe; burnished gold, sultry colours and a deeply lavish atmosphere created by the many candles in what has been rightly described as a ‘jewel-box’ of a theatre. To my mind, there couldn’t be a more perfect setting for Ford’s Jacobean tragedy of dark scandal, incestuous lust and spectacular murder.

The two central characters, a brother and sister fatally in love, are played with a convincing lustful chemistry. Fiona Button’s Annabella is no simpering maiden, and she develops the character excellently giving her a satisfyingly sassy streak, as she retaliates against unsettling misogyny whilst remaining graceful throughout. Likewise, her brother Giovanni (Max Benett) transforms from a petulant boyish lover into a poisonous man unhinged by jealousy. Although his remaining (and sometimes irritating) childlike gawkiness leaves the dark and murderous side of his character a little unconvincing at first, the extent of his transformation is confirmed by Bennett’s weighty conviction during the spectacular butchery of the second act.


As well as these two admirable performances, the rest of the cast is flawless in its characterisation; particularly James Garnon as Bergetto, who plays the unsuccessful suitor with an aristocratic buffoonery reminiscent of the wide-eyed ludicrousness of Hugh Laurie in the ‘Blackadder’ series. Consistently hilarious and a sheer delight to see on stage, Garnon adds a vivacity to the entire play which is, after the unexpectedly tragic turn in the second half, continued by the sardonic and seething servant, Vasquez (Phillip Cumbus), whose dry asides add a humour more subtle but no less brilliant than Garnon’s.

The most striking technical element of this production is the atmosphere created by the lighting and the skilled way in which it is controlled and exploited by the cast. The soft flickering glow in place of electrical lighting, adds an underlying sensuality to the production. This simultaneously intensifies the faces of the actors, which become as furrowed with light and shadow as the play itself, in which moments of comic brilliance are overcast with a grim and brooding brutality. Further ingenious experimentation with lighting during the snuffed-out blackness of the murder scene is a novel device; the audience is guided through the delightfully baffling sequence only by the distinctive voices of those on stage.


Another important and striking element of the performance is the music that compliments the action of the play throughout. I sometimes find that the historically accurate pipes and drums at the Globe puncture a performance rather than add to it, but here the remarkably talented musicians led by the experienced Musical Director Arngeir Hauksson subtly increase solemnity, hilarity or tension with bizarre instruments such as the ‘theorbo’ and ‘shawms’ (they produce sounds as eerie and interesting as their names suggest).

From incestuous scenes of an explicitly sexual nature to a gory confession during which a real heart is brandished on a dagger, from clownish fools rolling around in the stalls to horrifyingly convincing (but perfectly choreographed) sword fights, this is truly a play of excess, and one which is wickedly sumptuous to watch from start to finish. The greatest pity would be to miss it.

‘ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ will be showing at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe until December 7th, for tickets and information please click HERE