An over-ripe world of corruption and decadence lingers and leers from two backstage doors, but we the audience occupy Annabella’s bedroom for the full duration. A bed with red sheets sits at center stage, making an impromptu altar as well as serving more predictable purposes. Posters on the back wall resemble a pre-digital Facebook page, charting the heroine’s emerging sense of self. True Blood. Kabaret. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Gone with the Wind. At stage right, apart from the other posters, an image of the Virgin Mary.
The trouble starts when she’s playing sock puppets across the bed with brother Giovanni, and things devolve quickly. As they consummate their mutual love under the red comforter, a group of men, waiting on stage during most of the play, gather round to negotiate the bride’s price. Soranzo, a nobleman who sloughes off the widow Hippolyta in the sub-plot, wins her hand — but the muffled forms under the blanket remind us that bad things are coming.
What I love about Cheek by Jowl is their breakneck packing and headlong intensity. As with last year’s Macbeth, they played straight through without intermission. No place to run, no civilizing cocktails to assert distance between us and them. The strong ensemble cast pushed the metaphors hard — Giovanni drew a lipstick heart on his chest in the first scene, then cut out his sister’s bleeding heart in the last. The chorus of adult men chanted the couple’s lines back to them in an inverted religious rite as they first kissed. Giovanni turns up at his sister’s wedding to Soranzo taking close-up pictures of the bride. The widow Hippolita, played by Suzanne Burden, mocked Annabella’s sexy dancing with disturbing gyrations of her own.
Like Ben Brantley in the Times, I thought Lydia Wilson’s Annabella was the star around which this production rotated, though I like the supporting case more than he does. Annabella, of course, gets the most play, and the most variety: child, sex goddess, coy mistress, penitent, even briefly mother-to-be. In changing she touches everyone else onstage, from his love-idolotrous Byronic brother to her nurse, Putana — the play is full of dark send-ups of Romeo and Juliet, and this Nurse is one of the best — to her finally sympathetic husband, who appears readier to forgive incest and adultery here than in Ford’s script, perhaps because his accusations to his wife after he’s discovered her pre-marriage adultery — “Come, strumpet, famous whore!” — are played, oddly but movingly, as part of a love scene. The kissing stops once he finds out that she’s pregnant.
As in their Macbeth, which Cheek by Jowl transformed into a tale of doomed love, this production ends on a sentimental note. Giovanni, bare-chested as usual, sits on the edge of the bed with Annabella’s bleeding heart in his hand. Their father lies dead beside him, and the Cardinal who in Ford speaks the titular couplet that ends the play (“Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store, / Who could not say, ‘Tis pity she’s a whore?”) mills around with the remaining chorus of men. Rather than giving this corrupt authority his chance to moralize, director Declan Donnellan brings on a ghostly Annabella, dressed in girlish tights and t-shirt instead of the sexy panties and wedding dresses of the previous scenes. She walks silently up to the crying Giovanni and places her hand on his bloody hand, which contains her heart. He doesn’t move or seem to see her — but it’s a tender moment. Pity, I suppose, is what we’re left with.