Actually, this is a perfect play for people whose knowledge of the Renaissance is limited to a little Shakespeare. A lot has been said and written about making Shakespeare accessible, but what this play does is make a play accessible that a lot of audiences don’t normally get the opportunity to see. I love Renaissance theatre – the whole gamut of it, not just Shakespeare – and Cheek by Jowl has a great reputation of bringing innovative productions of neglected plays to the stage. I wrote about their production of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling in my Honours thesis. I also wrote about this play in my thesis, and I was very excited to see what Cheek by Jowl would do with it.
It’s not a perfect production. My theatre date and I had a long discussion after the show about the casting in particular. While every actor worked well in their individual role, some of the chemistries were not quite right – between Annabella and Hippolyta, for example, or (and in particular) Annabella and Giovanni. Jack Gordon’s Giovanni was a little too mainstream-ishly Lothario-like for the emo teen queen aesthetic that informed Lydia Wilson’s Annabella. It was easy to believe them as lovers, not so much as brother and sister – and considering how vital this is to the play, this was a bit of a problem.
However, despite these casting issues, Declan Donnellan’s direction was superb. Giovanni is typically played as a romantic hero, while Annabella is a little more morally questionable. I really liked the way that this production made Giovanni take on his fair share of the blame. Watching this production, it is clear that there is no excuse for what Giovanni does to Annabella, no Romeo-and-Juliet-ish overtones to their deaths. Giovanni’s obsession becomes almost stalker-like, Annabella the one clinging to something more like normalcy, the possibility of a happy life with Soranzo. This play omits the final line of the play, Ford’s final judgment of Annabella – “‘tis pity she’s a whore”. I found that, despite the problems I had with the chemistry between this actors, this production offered a more nuanced take on the characters of Giovanni and Annabella than I have encountered before. It is easy to portray Giovanni and Annabella simply as starstruck lovers, to make the audience feel queasy when they remember that they are related. This play complicated that, and as such, I feel like it exposed much more of the darkness and hedonism that lies at the heart of this play.
The most interesting character in the play is not Giovanni or Annabella, but rather Vasquez, who has an Iago-like thirst for inflicting pain and is completely amoral. Driven by his ferocious loyalty to Soranzo, he inflicts some of the most horrid tortures ever seen on the Renaissance stage, duly played to their hyper-gory extremes in this play. (The scene where Putana’s tongue is bitten out? Oh my God.) Laurence Spellman plays Vasquez as a likeable Cockney fella who would not be out of place in the works of Charles Dickens, and it is completely chilling. Beneath his friendly, immovable smile is a terrifying masochism. Spellman’s Vasquez drives the plot and drives the play. He is like a microcosm of ‘Tis Pity – everything appears fine, normal, friendly even, but underneath is a seething, mad, black, writing morass.
I found some of the dance sequences a little unnecessary, but the physical theatre in this production is excellent. I liked the way Donnellan directed it as an ensemble piece – most of the cast were onstage most of the time, and it gave the play a sort of claustrophobia while emphasising a message that is at its heart: individual actions can have far-reaching social consequences. Giovanni and Annabella’s love is not just transgressive because what they do to each other is taboo, but because they cross a boundary that causes their whole society to fracture.
The first play I ever reviewed on this blog was a production of the same play at Malthouse in Melbourne. It feels fitting, nearly a year later, to be reviewing the same play again. The Malthouse production was flawed, but good. This production was also flawed, but excellent. (Hopefully, my reviews have sustained a similar improvement in quality!) It is dark and gory and hedonistic and chaotic and passionate and wildly, wildly entertaining. If you missed it, you missed out. Cheek by Jowl should be highly, highly commended.