I first saw Cheek by Jowl’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in February 2012, when it was on tour at the Warwick Arts Centre. I thought it was fantastic, and my thoughts then would probably echo some of the points made in these reviews by Pete Kirwan and Steve Mentz. So, when I got the chance to see it again, at the Barbican, I couldn’t say no. Yet, unfortunately, I just can’t be as enthusiastic about it second time round. The cast has completely changed, and this might be part of the reason, but I don’t think it accounts for everything (you can see the current cast list here and compare it to the cast I saw in 2012). Lydia Wilson, who played Annabella in 2012, delivered an outstanding performance, which Eve Ponsonby was not quite able to match; the exquisite variety Wilson offered was missed, though I think that says more about the excellence of her performance than about the poorness of Ponsonby’s. Otherwise, I can’t single out an area I remember being weaker in the more recent production (though this may be a fault of my memory).
Indeed, there are some things I liked here that I don’t remember especially liking last time. I wasn’t particularly convinced by Jack Gordon’s Giovanni in 2012; I think I slightly preferred Orlando James this time round. I don’t really remember how Vasques was played last time, but I found Will Alexander’s comic take surprisingly chilling. He was able to manipulate Hippolita and Putana in a soft, soothing tone which often aroused laughter from the audience. It’s worth pointing out, too, that many of the things I liked the first time, I enjoyed the second time too. Conceptually, I still find it really interesting: the entire play ostensibly takes place in Annabella’s bedroom, or else, in one of the two adjoining rooms (one a bathroom, the other an unspecified space). So, at times, the bedroom is the bedroom, but usually, some sort of transformation is taking place. At the start of the show, Giovanni and the Friar talk either side of Annabella, who lies, oblivious to all this, on her bed. Later, Giovanni and Annabella kiss for the first time, but they aren’t alone; the cast surround them, watching, and then chanting their words back at them. Often, characters who are not taking part in the scene (and here, the standard references to scenes become slippery) watch, their gaze flitting from speaker to speaker. Often, non-speaking characters sit on the bed. Concepts of time are also distorted: dead characters rejoin the cast as silent observers, or as dancers in the production’s many musical interludes. Towards the end, the deceased Hippolita and the maimed Putana join in the revelry, apparently happy to consort with those who had abused them. Additionally, when “off-stage” characters are talked of, they are often actually on-stage, and they play out versions of themselves, as when Putana details the list of Annabella’s suitors and they parade themselves before her.
I still find all of this essentially thrilling and I’m still inclined to think that it points out the damaging male intrusions into Annabella’s world (indeed, the word ‘intrusion’ is wrong here; the point is that her space is never private enough in the first place). However, I was less impressed overall and I wonder if I had been blinded by the production’s brilliance. Above all, I was troubled by the ending, which was radically cut and reorganized. In the standard ending, Giovanni enters with Annabella’s heart on a dagger; his father dies of shock, he kills Soranzo, he is then killed himself, before the Cardinal attempts to draw an unconvincing moral from the story. In the Cheek by Jowl production, the play ends right after Florio’s death; Giovanni is still alive, cradling Annabella’s heart. In the distance, police sirens call; on the bed, on which Giovanni sits, Annabella appears, and reaches out for her brother. I still admire the abruptness of this ending, but I’ve got problems too and it’s made me rethink the way the gender politics work. Annabella’s gesture suggests she wants Giovanni to join her in death, perhaps so they can reignite their passion in an afterlife, but this seems contrary to what we have just seen. She doesn’t seem to want to die when Giovanni snaps her neck and I’m not sure to what extent she appreciates the brutal dismemberment which takes place immediately after. Does this suggest that Annabella wants to die? That she is complicit in her death? I think her death is more powerful (and it did seem powerful to me) if it’s not what she wanted. I felt, at first, that her attempt to reach out to her brother runs contrary to the brutality we had just witnessed. It might be said, though, that it’s not contradictory; that there is more evidence to support the suggestion that Annabella is complicit, or even an active participant, in her fate. The production opens when Annabella begins an infectious dance: before long, the cast (mostly men) are mimicking her moves. Is this her play? Are the men dancing to her tune? On the one hand, the production seems to refute this: the women are abused; their privacy is invaded. On the other hand it seems to suggest they are.