fri 01/12/2023

The Broken Heart, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

The Broken Heart, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The Broken Heart, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

John Ford's revenge tragedy retold with refreshing comic notes

Not got that loving feeling: Bassanes (Owen Teale) with Penthea (Amy Morgan)Photos by Bill Knight for theartsdesk

Jacobean playwright John Ford is flavour of the season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. His better-known, and simply better, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, opened the venue’s new programme last autumn and is followed now by that work’s younger sibling, The Broken Heart, in a production that rather gloriously surprises.

Director Caroline Steinbeis has talked of the elements of soap opera she found in the play, and overlays the traditional business of revenge tragedy with lashings of humour, moving the action on speedily and taking it briskly around the theatre’s auditorium to boot. It’s an interpretation that certainly runs up against one of the play’s lines, “Our court wears gravity more than we relish”: this Broken Heart doesn’t underscore the growing gravity of the second half, culminating in a familiar roster of fifth-act corpses, but gives proceedings a level of relish, complete with laugh-out-loud moments that certainly persuaded the audience last night. It leaves you musing on how purely ponderous a traditional interpretation would feel, and glad to have escaped one.

Not that Ford's story isn’t dark, with its strands of competing social status and preferment (“promotion justifies the shame”), and particularly the unattractive hierarchical control over women’s destinies exerted by the male characters. Brian Ferguson, playing Orgilus (pictured right) as much as a mischievous schemer enjoying a broad Scots and interpolations of “Och!”, as a tragic figure, sets the tone when he announces that he’s leaving his native Sparta for Athens having been denied marriage to Penthea (Amy Morgan, very impressive here, in turns tetchy and emotionally devastating) by the latter’s brother, Ithocles (Luke Thompson) who’s directed her troth towards the more powerful – and much older and angrier – Bassanes (Owen Teale of Game of Thrones fame, main picture, with Morgan). As a parting gesture Orgilus extracts a promise from his own sister, the innocent Euphrania (Thalissa Teixeira), that she won’t marry without the consent of her brother and father. So much for following your heart...

Of course Orgilus goes nowhere, remaining in disguise (and losing the accent) to spy on developments at the court of King Amyclas (Patrick Godfrey) and his daughter Calantha (Sarah MacRae) who is next-in-line, even though she’s sceptical about her own fitness to take the crown given her gender. Ithocles duly returns victorious from war to seek the hand of the princess. There’s subplot multiplication, including at least two characters going through unexpected changes of heart, none of which, however, stops the avenging Orgilus.

The women, unsurprisingly, come out worst. Penthea can’t accept that she might have a chance at a new, happier life, and starves herself to death (off-stage). Calantha hears of a series of deaths in the final scene and dies of the titular broken heart, though the way it’s portrayed here the experience seems to have the serenity of a masque (pictured left), all beautifully designed by Max Jones. The only exception to this rather misogynist rule comes with the feisty Grausis (Sanchia McCormack), the servant of Bassanes who is as bold and bitter as any of the menfolk.

A broken heart may at least be lighter on the audience than the bleeding one that closes ‘Tis Pity…, but Ford doesn’t let us go without the deadly chair by which Orgilus despatches Ithocles, nor the former’s subsequent slow death, his veins cut. Such bloodletting is nevertheless compensated for by some earlier Renaissance (as costumed here by Lorraine Ebdon-Price) court business that wouldn’t look out of place in Blackadder. There’s little to match the more than camp appearance of Joe Jameson as Nearchus, ruler of Argos, with his line, “Well! Hello! Sparta.”

Steinbeis opens the show with a silent scene, one of a number of semi-tableaux that work nicely through the production, that catches the elements of violence and concealment, beating-up and splitting-up, that run through the story of The Broken Heart. She closes it, after the bloodletting’s done, with a dance to a melody that seems to reach us from the Balkans. It’s a nice touch, given that Balkan cinema, with its uneasy mix of comedy and cruelty, comes as close as anything I can think of to the mood of this most refreshing production.  

A broken heart may at least be lighter on the audience than the bleeding one that closes 'Tis Pity She's a Whore'


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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