Tis Pity She’s a Whore
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Tis Pity She’s a Whore

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The tale of Giovanni and Annabella, the doomed protagonists of ‘ Tis Pity She’s a Whore , is a tragedy to rival that of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers.

The tale of Giovanni and Annabella, the doomed protagonists of ‘ Tis Pity She’s a Whore , is a tragedy to rival that of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. Set in the Italian city of Parma, playwright John Ford pits the innocence and purity of the couple’s affections against a world of moral corruption and treachery. But if things already sound grim for this duo, they must face one last hurdle that will prove insurmountable – Giovanni and Annabella are also brother and sister.

First published in 1633, Ford’s play has been described as one of the most controversial in the history of English literature. It was the first English play not only to place incestuous lovers as its central characters, but moreover to treat them with some sympathy. Exploring one of Western culture’s most enduring taboos, Ford’s masterpiece has consequently been banned almost as often as it’s been performed.

Opening on February 11, ‘Tis Pity will kick off the Malthouse Theatre’s 2011 season. And if the posters scattered around town are any indication – a striking image of a naked, androgynous couple bound in cling-wrap, locked in an embrace which is at once impassioned and suffocating – this rendition will not shy away from the steamier side of the text.

But according to Benedict Samuel, who will be taking on the role of Giovanni in the upcoming production, this “gritty Romeo and Juliet” uses incest as a dramatic device to highlight the depravity which pervades all aspects of the play’s middle-class milieu.

“It explores the repercussions of an incestuous relationship and how that has a ripple effect throughout the society they’re bound within,” says Samuel. “So it’s kind of a comment on morals, and the questionableness of morals. Their love is quite a pure thing in the play, and it’s surrounded by corruption with everyone else”.

Protagonist Giovanni is a scholar, and a brilliant one at that; yet the flipside of his great intelligence is a solitary nature, an unshakable melancholy and an egocentricity which convinces him of his own righteousness above all else. He is even able to justify his desires for his sister, Annabella, whom he sees as his only chance at “perpetual happiness”.

But when Annabella becomes pregnant with Giovanni’s child, and marries the adulterer Soranzo to hide her transgression, the play crescendos with one of the bloodiest and most memorable final scenes to grace the stage. Let’s just say Giovanni does not take his oath, “Love me, or kill me, sister,” lightly.

“He’s a really troubled sort of individual,” says Samuel. “He’s at odds with himself and he’s about to explode, because he’s been harbouring these feelings for his sister for so long. The first time you meet him, he erupts and has to say, ‘I have to speak or I’ll just burst’. Coming in on that kind of energy is really difficult and daunting”.

Despite these trepidations, the part of Giovanni is a dream role for Samuel, and one he seems almost destined to play. He first came across Ford’s work as an early adolescent, randomly pulling down a book of plays from his father’s bookshelf and immediately falling in love with the text.

“I read him when I was a little kid… and I thought, ‘Fucking hell! Someone’s got to put this play on’. And then I found out the Malthouse was doing it, and I called my agent and I said, ‘I’ve got to have an audition for this!’”

Only recently graduating from NIDA, this will be Samuel’s first role in a professional production. But after growing up in an artistically engaged household (his older brother Xavier is also an actor, perhaps most famous for his role in Eclipse – the third instalment in the Twilight saga), Samuel does not appear too daunted by the prospect of his debut performance.

“Both my parents are teachers, and they dabbled in theatre themselves… I was exposed to very mature conversations at the dinner table. I got treated as an adult from a very young age.

“If we were going on tomorrow, I think I’d run back to Sydney and disappear! [But] things are going at a nice pace, where I think by the time we open we’ll have a really cracker show”.

Tis Pity will be the first play at the Malthouse under the new direction of Marion Potts, who took over late last year after six years under Michael Kantor. Potts brings a wealth of experience to the company, having spent four years as Resident Director at the Sydney Theatre Company from 1995-1999 and most recently working as the Associate Artistic Director of the Bell Shakespeare Company.

And if the choice of ‘Tis Pity to open this year’s season is any indication, Potts promises to take the Malthouse into exciting new territories.

“She’s been very thoughtful about things,” says Samuel, “and very open to how we are interpreting the text, alongside her vision… Nothing’s been hidden, and we certainly haven’t been moved around like pawns. It’s been very exploratory rehearsal room, which is great”.

Potts’ adaptation will stay true to the original text, but has been aesthetically revamped with a contemporary mise en scène, which Samuel says will still allude to the play’s original epoch. Potts will again be teaming up with composer Andree Greenwell, who scored her acclaimed rendition of Venus and Adonis in 2008.

“While we’re not doing it in Elizabethan clothing, the dialogue and the situations and the characters and the things they’re going through are quite modern in themselves,” says Samuel. “It’s fascinating to see such an old play completely lift off the page really easily”.

Like the best drama from this period, both the content and the controversy of Ford’s original text has retained relevance for audiences across now nearly 400 years. Its themes of love, lust, murder, betrayal, corruption and revenge are still as pertinent as ever.

The play’s treatment of gender, however, depicting (as its title would suggest) a rigidly patriarchal and masculine world, may not translate so easily. In her new role at the Malthouse, Potts is the first woman to head a major Melbournian theatre company, making her choice of this particular play to usher in her first season a contentious one.

But according to Samuel, the testosterone-fuelled society of Parma brings many other questions into the foreground. “I hope what it provides is for people to be objectively critical of that type of environment where people, regardless of their gender, are manipulated or corrupted.

“I think [the play] really puts into question how you can manipulate things, or how you can define things and change them for your own benefit. It’s a really confronting play in the sense that you have to pick a side… It forces you to think what you would do in that situation”.

This moral confrontation will only be heightened by such a direct medium as theatre, ensuring that whether you love it or loathe it, ‘Tis Pity will be a very memorable theatrical experience.

“I think there’s a weird enjoyment in being confronted sometimes,” laughs Samuel. “Maybe that’s just me, I don’t know!”

Tis Pity She’s a Whore will be playing at the Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre from February 11 – March 5. Tickets are $49 full price, $43 for seniors, $39 concession and $26 for students. For more info, visit the website at malthousetheatre.com.au.