Blood. How useful is it to a theatre director staging Jacobean revenge plays? John Ford's play ends with a scene that makes the end of Hamlet look like a vicarage tea-party. So is it best to buy in extra supplies of fake stage blood in the name of realism, and end up mopping the floor between scenes, or should the director accept the more usual Shakespearean convention and let the audience use their imaginations? There is no easy answer.
In most productions on the open air Globe stage, violent death happens without blood, as in this year's excellent Antony and Cleopatra. This non-realist tendency can be taken to extremes, as I recall from a radical Globe version of Macbeth (also involving Eve Best) which cut out the violence altogether and substituted stones being dropped into buckets. French classical tragedy has a bloodless convention in which violent death happens off stage. Or you can pump up the gore and horror as Lucy Bailey did with her very popular horror show version of Titus Andronicus. Back in 2012 Declan Donnellan's Cheek By Jowl did a radically updated version of 'Tis Pity which cut the final gore-splattered scene. The violence wasn't removed altogether, but was suggested, taking place in a bathroom offstage. In the National Theatre's recent King Lear, the mad king battered his Fool to death in a bathtub; the audience saw the blows but not the blood.
In the latest version of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, staged at the atmospheric candle-lit Sam Wanamaker theatre, director Michael Longhurst has optedfor the blood in a big way. When Giovanni ends his incestuous affair with his sister Annabella by stabbing her to death, there are crimson streaks across her virginal white dress, across the bedsheets and across the floor. The effect is very powerful, but the realist approach founders in Ford's final over-the-top scene of carnage, in which Giovanni appears with Annabella's heart on his dagger. Longhurst suddenly switches to a different approach here, having the actors hang up a 'Happy Birthday' banner and giving them party hats. I'm not sure the combination of arch post-modernism and buckets of blood really works, but I'm not sure there is any foolproof way to play this scene straight without generating unwanted laughs.
As the two lovers, Fiona Button and Max Bennett meet the challenge of playing an explicit nude bedroom scene that conveys a real sense of desire. And there are other standout performances from Noma Dumezweni as Hippolita and James Garnon as the idiotic suitor Bergetto. But somehow in the theatre, more is often less and less is often more. Thinking back to the superb Duchess of Malfi in the same theatre a few months ago, I think David Dawson and Gemma Arterton generated a much higher erotic charge in their brother/sister relationship, without removing a stitch of clothing. Sex, like blood, is sometimes most effective when it is suggested on stage rather than shown explicitly.