L’Ormindo, Francesco Cavalli,
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
3 February – 5 March 2015
’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford,
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
23 October – 7 December 2014
We all had a shrewd idea of what we were going to get with the launch of
the new Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the South Bank in 1997. Elizabethan
open-air theatre had been pretty well described and illustrated over the
centuries. Laurence Olivier’s popular 1944 film of King Henry V cleverly
demonstrated the way in which Shakespeare could put over such a drama to
an audience of both literary and lay folk in the theatre by the Thames – bad
weather and all. Recreating Jacobean indoor daytime theatre with a degree
of authenticity was always bound to be a more difficult proposition. Some
might have said: was it really necessary?
Now in its triumphant second season, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, rubbing
shoulders with the Globe on the South Bank site, has emphatically answered
that question. Candle-lit drama in a wooden-benched auditorium is experienced
not as a pedantic aping of the past, but as a way of recreating the enchantment –
and the earthy intimacy – of early seventeenth-century theatre-going.
I caught up with Kasper Holten’s inventive production of Francesco Cavalli’s
opera L’Ormindo not on its premiere outing at the Sam Wanamaker last year,
but this February, with Toria Banks as its revival director. I have admired Holten
since seeing his 105 minute-long film version of Don Giovanni, entitled Juan.
It brilliantly compressed the essence of Mozart’s opera, and made sense of it
for a contemporary audience in a way no other production I have seen does.
To say that Holten’s version of L’Ormindo is a theatrical triumph is not to
diminish the singing, most of which was ravishing. No one would contend
that Cavalli is a great composer. In the wake of Monteverdi’s pyrotechnical
exordium, seventeenth-century Italian opera is still finding its feet. The
halting mixture of recitative and arioso cries out for some full blooded arias
or thundering choruses to propel the action. When some fine duets develop
towards the end Cavalli shows us what he is capable of.
Yet, somehow, none of these limitations detracted from the total theatrical
effect of the evening – nor undermined the proposition that the aged King
Ariadenus (Graeme Broadbent) will meekly surrender his young wife Erisbe
(trapped in one of those arid ‘January and May’ marriages humorously
depicted in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale) to the eponymous hero – one of
his generals who conveniently turns out to be a long-lost illegitimate son.
Susanna Hurrell sang a convincingly sex-starved Erisbe confiding her bedchamber
frustrations to her friend and confidante, the no-less sexy Mirinda.
Meanwhile Amidas (Ed Lyon), another of Ariadenus’s generals is also in
love with Erisbe, at the expense of his fiancée, Sicle, whose jilted plight
was poignantly expressed by the exquisite voice of Joélle Harvey. All is
resolved. Ormindo (Samuel Boden) ‘gets the girl’. Amidas has to mend his
fences with Sicle. And we are glad that the apparent ‘wallflower’, Mirinda,
also has a lover waiting in the wings. She deserved no less. Sensuously
sung by Rachel Kelly, she seemed to present a threat to every red-blooded
male on the stage.
One of the marvels of the show is – the candles. Hundreds of them. They
are not just there as décor. To follow the intricacies of a ‘lighting plot’
which is actually powered by individuals snuffing, reigniting, snuffing and
igniting so many of them yet again, is mesmerising. It’s almost worth going
to the Sam Wanamaker just for that.
Among the theatre’s drama offerings to date John Ford’s 1630s play ’Tis
Pity She’s a Whore was perhaps the most startling – and not just for its
handsome pair of incestuous young lovers cavorting naked in bed on stage
under our noses. Michael Longhurst’s direction revealed a play that handles
the theme of incest in a totally compelling manner. Beaumont and Fletcher,
in their earlier play A King and No King, had used the theme of brother-sister
incest merely to titillate. Ford is able to create a powerful sympathy for two
young souls trapped in their illicit love which will condemn them to such a
One of the play’s great strengths is Ford’s verse, which is in places not far
below the level of Shakespeare’s. In its peaks of sheer beauty the poetry of
’Tis Pity constantly beguiles us with echoes of Romeo and Juliet. And we
don’t for one moment fight against that. None of this would have worked,
of course, without the arresting performances of its protagonists, Giovanni
(Max Bennett) and Annabella (Fiona Button), tragic children of a prominent
Parma citizen trapped in a love that goes, fatally, beyond sibling affection.
From the moment Annabella responded to her brother’s declaration without a
trace of maidenly modesty, but with the sweet simplicity of: ‘what thou hast
urged/ My captive heart had long ago resolved,’ we were transported with the
lovers, hoping against hope that there could be some bloodless resolution.
Ford was a creature of his time. This simply will not happen. But in a resolution
as gruesome as any in Jacobean tragedy these protagonists stood out
as almost the only wholly sympathetic characters. The Sam Wanamaker’s
powerful and moving production made the strongest case for the retitling of
this play, whose distinctive name, taken from its cruelly uncomprehending
last line, spoken by the brutal and sinister papal nuncio, gives no clue for an
audience or reader to what is about to confront them.