Preview: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Andy Murray discovers why West Yorkshire Playhouse’s latest production is getting people hot under the collar

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If you’ve been out and about in Leeds lately, you may have spotted the striking poster campaign for West Yorkshire Playhouse’s new production of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. It shows a pieta sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the dying Christ, with a framed family photo in the background. Or at least, it did: the Bishop of Leeds condemned the poster for being offensively provocative, and as a result it’s since been replaced. But that’s an accusation that’s rebuffed by Jonathan Munby, director of the production.

“It was never the Playhouse’s intention to offend people and I know that they’ve taken the whole thing very, very seriously. There is nothing on that poster that didn’t relate directly to either the contents of the play or indeed this production. Nothing was chosen arbitrarily.“

For ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, though, ‘twas ever thus. Since it was first performed back in 1633, it’s always attracted controversy by the bucket-load. It was quite common for it to be staged under different, less inflammatory titles down the ages.

A rose by any other name smells just as sweet, of course, and there’s no disguising the fact that this fine Jacobean revenge drama hinges on an incestuous brother-sister relationship. Centuries later, this remains a hugely thorny point, Munby says.

“Incest, I think, is one of the last taboos. It’s something that we’re still not able to deal with on some levels. That really appeals to me in a sense. It exposes something about the society that we live in, in terms of the way that we are able – or not – to deal with these kind of issues.”

Munby has spent ten years waiting for the opportunity to stage the piece. In the event, he has set the production in Italy of 1962. Again, it’s not an arbitrary choice.

“That period throws up a few really interesting ideas that I think help release the play. It was a decade of great change, and one of those changes was a sort of throwing off of older, more conservative values and embracing the new. At the centre of this play we have two young people who stand for freedom of speech and freedom of expression. They are literally children of the revolution: their own revolution, in fact.”

The children in question are grieving son Giovanni and his sister Annabella, consumed with forbidden love for one other. But around this spins out a tale of class contrasts and conflict with church leaders. It’s an established part of the British theatre canon, not some one-dimensional “issue of the day” piece.

“There is so much more about this play than just the incest element. Yes, that’s right at the centre of it and people do just associate the play with that. But Ford writes a piece of total entertainment.

“Actually, it’s a tragi-comedy. It’s as funny in the first half as it is tragic in the second. Add to that Ford’s Jacobean taste for spectacle. We’ve got fantastic musical numbers in this as well. And as with many revenge tragedies of this period, it’s fairly bloody.”

The replacement advertising campaign for the production reads simply “Judge the play, not the poster” and Munby is hopeful that this will be the case.

“I know that it’s going to have a very broad appeal and it’s already selling very well. It’ll be very interesting to hear the audience’s reaction to it. When I first saw it, I was thrilled and appalled and entertained all at the same time.”

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, 7-28 May, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

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