tis pity she's a whoreIt’s a curious thing that, on the week of a Papal visit, and the accompanying protests against his particular brand of conservative theism, it takes a relatively obscure 17th century play to shake us out of our surefooted sense of right and wrong.

While it’s one thing to argue against the Vatican’s stance on women in the clergy, homosexuality and HIV, there are some moral mazes it’s far harder to fight yourself out of.

And so it is that, for all its verbose soliloquies and the ripe bloodlust of its final act, John Ford’s Tis Pity She’s A Whore still finds a way to punch through the centuries and find a foothold with a modern audience.

There are few themes left in theatre that guarantee a visceral attack on an audience. Incest, now as it was then, is one taboo that retains its power to shock. And, when this central story of a brother and sister daring to requite each other’s love unfolds, it sends a palpable shiver down our collective spine.

But there’s something rotten at the core of this tale – and while a modern audience might understand that our hardwired response to incest is more to do with evolution than religion, its still a topic that manages to make us shift uneasily in our seats. The play’s dramatic problem, though, is stark – where do our sympathies lie? This is no Romeo and Juliet – star-crossed they may be, but Giovanni and Annabella are doomed from their first kiss. And, somehow, there’s an emptiness where empathy should be.

tis pity she's a whoreIt’s interesting, too, that the centre of the stark, Ashley Shairp-designed set is scooped out like a cock-fighting pit – for this gruesome play manipulates the audience enough to feel like they’re the grubby participants in an illicit spectator sport (as, frankly, its final half hour is).

Of course, this being a Restoration relic, there are more subplots and dastardly deeds afoot than your average ITV soap opera – and there’s a great wedding-day Balkan lament courtesy of spurned lover, Hippolita (Emily Pithon).

No doubt these consuming passions would have been lapped by a blood thirsty Renaissance crowd, weaned on the savagery of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. But, played against the intimate psychological turmoil of its hapless lovers, the resultant stew seems a touch overcooked to modern tastes, although director Chris Meads certainly does everything in his power to keep a lid on the proceedings until…well, until, events dictate otherwise.

In a weaker ensemble’s hands, all this over-wrought violence (not to mention the on-stage offal) might have ended up a bloody mess, but the play’s profound polemic is kept aflame by a strong central performance by Matti Houghton as Annabella, and Hugh Skinner’s Giovanni. And, as a perfectly pitched slice of rep theatre, it allows space for others to shine too – such as Eileen O’Brien’s pathetic lady servant, Putana.

Sex, violence and one hell of a dry cleaning bill. Tis Pity She’s A Whore isn’t everyone’s idea of a great night out. But it’s a well-timed test of our moral compass.

Tis Pity She’s A Whore, til October 30
Liverpool Everyman, Hope Street

Photography by Sam Heath