Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
Two most famous works of 17th century playwright John Ford are ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, which came to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse last autumn, and The Broken Heart, which now graces its coveted stage. Set in ancient times the story sees the Spartan general Ithocles marry his sister Penthea off to the great nobleman Bassanes, who keeps her as a prisoner, and the response to this of her true love Orgilus.
The play begins with this tragedy, and ends with even more, as several deaths occur and the new Queen of Sparta, following the demise of her father, dies of a broken heart. What makes The Broken Heart intriguing is that between these tragic start and end points, there are many moments of reconciliation — opportunities for things to fall right, even.
Caroline Steinbeis’s production makes us feel for every character in some way, so that it is hard to brand even the most brutal figure as simply evil. One could never start to justify the ‘misogyny’ that many of the men show, yet this is the product of a society in which it would simply never have occurred to them to see women as equals. Indeed, while we are inclined to see the play as a reflection of a (thankfully) distant era, in his time Ford was being revolutionary in exposing these prejudices.
There are laugh-out-loud moments, but many more are possessed of a dry humour where the joke derives from both the absurdity and the horror of the situation. For example, at the mid-point Penthea is reconciled with Ithocles, but there is something profoundly ironic in him spilling his woes and asking for both her sympathy and help after all he has put her through. The production also makes excellent use of dance. At the start of the second half the women jive like automaton that have just emerged from a music box as if to emphasise how they are being entirely controlled, used and abused by the men. Similarly, the Queen hears of the numerous deaths while dancing, with her movements becoming more crazed and frenetic as each new report comes in.
From among the strong cast, several performances stand out in particular. Luke Thompson as Ithocles feels like a dashing member of The Riot Club, capable of great smoothness and affability, yet immensely callousness and cruelty. Owen Teale gives a perfectly measured performance as Bassanes as he tempers his absolute brutality towards Penthea with a few comic moments, but ultimately proves to be little more than an old man racked with pain and guilt at all he has done. Amy Morgan also presents many facets to the character of Penthea who reveals such strength in undergoing everything that she is forced to endure.
Until 18 April at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, SE1 9DT. For tickets (£10-£60) visit the Shakespeare’s Globe website. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.