'Tis Pity Ford's Not Shakespeare

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John Ford's The Broken Heart

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

directed by Caroline Steinbeis

This play should really be called The Broken Hearts, plural. A beautiful princess's death at the very end is attributed to her "broken heart," but she is merely the last of several characters who meet a sticky finale because they're desperately unhappy with how their romantic entanglements have panned out. Murder, suicide, and self-starvation as well as simply giving up the will to live are the different means these troubled people are dispatched, but they'd all suffered from the same despair.

Pretty grim stuff, and rising star director Caroline Steinbeis has chosen to milk opportunities for comedy wherever and whenever they appear during the two and three quarter hours. This gives a somewhat stop-start effect as the tense propulsion towards the tragic climax is frequently punctured by comic let-offs. It also makes a production that already has too many characters and too much going on even more baffling at times.

John Ford's rarely staged tragedy was written for and performed by Shakespeare's old company, The King's Men, around 1629, thirteen years after the Bard's death. It was put on at the indoor Blackfriars Playhouse, from which the wonderful fifteen month-old Sam Wanamaker Playhouse takes its inspiration, as well as in the original Globe itself. Ford is best known for his bloodthirsty, incest-filled gangbang, 'Tis Pity She's A Whore.

The Broken Heart's complex plot is a tangled web of problematic relationships. Here's a stab at describing it: in ancient Greece, Orgilus (Brian Ferguson) loves Penthea (Amy Morgan), who has been forced by her own brother Ithocles (Luke Thompson) to marry the intensely jealous Bassanes, a character once played by Laurence Olivier and here interpreted mesmerisingly by Owen Teale. Orgilus's sister Euphrania (Thalissa Teixeira) has the hots for Tom Stuart's Prophilus. Meanwhile, Ithocles fancies Princess Calantha (Sarah MacRae), who is being pushed towards marrying a prince, Nearchus (Joe Jameson). Got that? Now throw in a few more odds and ends, including ominous Delphic oracles. Needless to say, the course of true love doesn't run smoothly for anyone.

Most enchanting is the golden gloom of the candlelit Jacobean-style playhouse. The candles' glow strongly influences the action's mood, sometimes radiating soft, warm light on sympathetic characters' faces and lavish costumes, at other times casting scary shadows on evildoers' countenances. You can smell the beeswax and sometimes hear the crackle of the flames. The effect is beautifully theatrical, in other words. But John Ford wasn't Shakespeare, alas, and while it's great to see one of Ford's neglected works revived, I can't wait to come back in future to see one of the Stratford playwright's masterpieces performed in such an incredible setting.

photo | ©Marc Brenner

#london #johnford #swp

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