Sydney Festival: 'Tis Pity She's A Whore

20 January 2012

'Tis Pity She's A Whore' tells the story of an incestuous relationship between siblings.
'Tis Pity She's A Whore' tells the story of an incestuous relationship between siblings.

Associate Professor Penny Russell from the University of Sydney's Department of History responds to the Sydney Festival production 'Tis Pity She's A Whore.

Giovanni regards his lovely sister Annabella with incestuous lust. His half-hearted efforts to repress his desire fail; he declares his forbidden passion and learns that it is returned. Annabella's attempts to remain unmarried and faithful to her brother/lover are disrupted when she discovers she is pregnant; to hide her shame she agrees to marry her noble suitor, Soranzo.

The extravagant plot of the Jacobean tragedy 'Tis Pity She's a Whore plays out from there.

A bloody drama of passionate intensity, it is driven by the impulses and desires of its principal characters.

The moral message built into the play seems, at first sight, a simple one. Indeed, the character of Friar Bonaventura makes the message explicit: Giovanni's passion may be understandable, but still he should never have expressed it, and certainly never have acted upon it. Again and again the friar urges repentance and points out the awful consequences of wrongdoing, but to no avail. The indulgence of sinful lust leads inescapably to retribution.

Yet this play drips with moral ambiguity. The friar's recipe for repression and atonement inspires little sympathy; the declaration of love between brother and sister - conversely and discomfortingly - inspires quite a lot, in a scene that speaks eloquently of the intensity of pleasure when passionate desire blends so seamlessly with the casual intimacy of siblings.

We are almost impelled to believe, with Giovanni, that love cannot be wrong, and that it is safe to trust its impulses. Are the dire consequences that follow, then, only the product of social convention and disgust? Or are the lovers victims, not of their own desires, but of the selfish plotting of a loveless society? We are not quite allowed to reach this conclusion, but the question is never entirely laid to rest. Giovanni is no hero, but nor is he an uncomplicated villain.

The same might be said of every character in the play. There are no good guys here, but curiously - in a play in which eyes are gouged, a tongue is bitten off and a heart is cut from a corpse - there are no out-and-out villains either.

As a historian with a strong interest in honour and emotion, I came to this play wondering whether its passionate themes and moral structure could have relevance for a 21st-century audience.

The production by Cheek by Jowl places that question firmly at centre stage. There is no attempt to present the play as a period piece: costumes, settings, music and style all tend to ground the action in a loosely anchored present, conveyed in prominently displayed movie posters advertising everything from Gone With the Wind to True Blood. The staging of the play thus makes a claim for the timeless recognisability of the passions that surge through the script.

In some ways this contemporary 'feel' only underlines the historical disjuncture between us and these Jacobean characters, whose language (both in tone and principle) belongs irreducibly to another era.

It doesn't matter what they are, or are not, wearing: these players speak lines from another century, and we hear the distance even as we recognise the power of language to connect us still.

But although the production cannot annihilate four centuries of history, nor does it invite us to condescend to the characters or the script, or to see the drama as a quaint revival of a simpler morality. The characters are swayed by impulse and self-interest; their actions inspire fascination and horror rather than sympathy or identification.

The drama is more spectacular than emotive; indeed, we are never quite sure where our sympathies should lie. But in the end this is precisely why, and how, the play speaks to our contemporary world - challenging and unsettling conventional moral forms that we have grown accustomed to under the influence of Hollywood and TV soap operas.

In 'Tis Pity She's a Whore the principal characters seek love in a loveless world, take it where they find it, and pay the price. Our sympathies are invoked for all, or none: there are no goodies and baddies, only specimens of flawed humanity who wrestle with issues of fidelity and trust, betrayal and revenge, under a moral compass that spins wildly out of control.

'Tis Pity She's a Whore continues at the Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay until 21 January.

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