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Poor lady, what hath she committed, which any lady in Italy in the like case would not?

December 2, 2012 16 comments

Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford. 1629. French title: Dommage qu’elle soit une putain.

This play by John Ford was the next one of my subscription to the theatre. It was directed by Declan Donnellan, played by British actors and therefore in English with subtitles. I thought I’d better read it before seeing it; and it proved an excellent idea.

The plot is surprising. It is set in Parma, where Annabella, beautiful as her name says it, is the centre of attention. She is to be married and several suitors fight for her hand. Her father likes Soranzo but will not marry her against her will. And actually, what’s not to like to Soranzo, according to Annabella’s tutoress, Putana (another understatement in names for putana means whore in Italian)

As I am a very woman, I like Signior Soranzo well; he is wise, and what is more, rich; and what is more than that, kind; and what is more than all this, a nobleman: such a one, were I the fair Annabella myself, I would wish and pray for. Then he is bountiful; besides, he is handsome, and by my troth, I think, wholesome; and that’s news in a gallant of three-and-twenty: liberal, that I know; loving, that you know; and a man sure, else he could never have purchased such a good name with Hippolita, the lusty widow, in her husband’s lifetime. An ’twere but for that report, sweetheart, would he were thine! Commend a man for his qualities, but take a husband as he is a plain, sufficient, naked man; such a one is for your bed, and such a one is Signior Soranzo, my life for’t.

So the 17th century tutoress openly cares about a suitor’s manhood, which I found quite unusual for the time. This sets the tone of the play. One of Annabella’s suitor, Bergetto, is so stupid than he thinks that this is a compliment:

Forsooth, my master said, that he loved her almost as well as he loved parmesan. 

Therefore Bergetto is not even close to win Annabella’s heart for he lacks the wit. And indeed, does a woman swoon of love when compared to cheese? In any case, Annabella’s heart isn’t available any more as she’s in love with her brother Giovanni who loves her in return. Where Racine depicts passionate but platonic love from Phèdre to Hippolyte, John Ford goes further. Annabella and Giovanni consume their love and the spectator has absolutely no doubt about it as Giovanni comments:

I marvel why the chaster of your sex

Should think this pretty toy called maidenhead,

So strange a loss; when, being lost, ’tis nothing,

And you are still the same.

Add to the mix that Soranzo’s ex-mistress Hippolita wants to take revenge on him because he dumped her, that Annabella gets pregnant with her brother’s baby and that several side plots implying love, betrayal, violence, sex and revenge spice up the whole and you have a good idea of the play.

Dommage_qu_elle_soit_une_putain_001While reading it, it left me with an impression of a buoyant, controversial and punchy text. Now how would that be on stage? Director Declan Donnellan chose to cut the sub-plots and concentrate on the main one: the incestuous relationship between Annabella and Giovanni, Soranzo’s suit, Hippolita’s interference and the pregnancy. The text is the original but scenes have been cut off. Well that’s not something I usually support but here, I have to say it was brilliantly done. In addition, the play has been transposed from the 17th century to our time.

Annabella has a room with posters of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and True Blood. All the furniture is red, the colour of brothels. She has a laptop and an Ipod, she looks like any adolescent wearing sexy lingerie. Some scenes are also a musical, with today’s music and dancing. The difference in social classes are highlighted by accents; the noblemen speak copyrighted BBC English while the male servant, Vasquez has a popular accent. The friar is a black actor who speaks American with the tone of a TV preacher. I loved Putana: picture an actress who looks like Bette Midler, dressed in a soubrette costume, wiggling her behind in the room while flicking off imaginary dust with a feather duster. Hilarious.

John Ford goes straight ahead to all kinds of subversive themes. Giovanni defends himself in front of the friar and explains why incest should be tolerated. The Church is pictured as greedy and immoral, because the nonce doesn’t condemn obvious murders. (Justice is fled to heaven, and comes no nearer.) Lust rules the world, wild violence is accepted and feral behaviours are common. In this world, citizens are allowed to kill another human being when they feel they are entitled to.

And it is incredible to read a play so blatant about incest, which is a huge taboo. Annabella and Giovanni love each other like lovers, like husband and wife. It’s a passionate, possessive love that will lead them to an untimely death. They go against every rule and let love and lust win the best of them. Their love is a landslide that takes the carpet under their feet and leads them to an inevitable fall.

Ford’s style is terribly crude sometimes with very straightforward comparisons, like here, when Soranzo realises he married a pregnant woman:

To marry a great woman, being made great in the stock to your hand, is a usual sport in these days; but to know what ferret it was that hunted your coney-berry,—there is the cunning.

And along with these blunt comparisons, he writes beautifully about love and its torments.

For every sigh that thou has spent for me,

I have sighed ten; for every tear, shed twenty:

And not so much for that I loved, as that

I durst not say I loved, nor scarcely think it.

As you have probably understood it by now, I loved this play. I don’t try to analyse it but can’t help marvelling at its modernity. Donnellan’s version is astonishing. It brings back the full force of the text, the fun, the powerful feelings, the brutal violence. Under his direction, all the arthritis a text like this can get over the centuries vanishes and is replaced by freshness and creativity. It lasted two hours, it seemed two minutes and I loved every moment of it.

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