Love, humour, revenge and silent grief provide a potent brew in John Ford’s rarely performed 17th century play The Broken Heart, revived in a new production directed by Caroline Steinbeis, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
The scene is ancient Sparta and the loving couple Penthea and Orgilus are forced apart by her brother Ithocles and Penthea is forced into a loveless marriage with a rich and insanely jealous man, Bassanes. Orgilus, disguised as a poor scholar, watches, waits and as events unfold unleashes a terrible cycle of revenge which involves much bloodletting, a murderous trick chair, death by starvation, a grisly macabre dance and a mock marriage to a corpse.
If all this sounds like a tale of relentless gloom, it is not, for Steinbeis has injected a sardonic sense of humour into the proceedings. However there is a tendency for her to use comic overkill at times when the drama is reaching a tragic momentum. Furthermore although this densely plotted play has moments of real emotional intensity, it can seem both absurd and plodding.
Nevertheless, Steinbeis manages to breathe life and a certain dynamism in this tale of an exalted love struggling to exist in a world of selfishness, jealousy and tawdry court politics. There’s also imaginative choreography by Imogen Knight and some sets and costumes are spectacular.
The flickering candlelight and shadowy corners of this intimate auditorium perfectly suit this play about obsessive passions and vengeful schemes which is enhanced by some eloquent and poetic passages.
Strong performances come from Luke Thompson as the hot-headed Ithocles bad Brian Ferguson as the likeable and lovelorn Orgilus, while Owen Teale revels in the comic grotesqueness of the pious and brutal prig Bassanes. Amy Morgan makes an attractive Penthea and Sarah MacRae a graceful Princess Calantha, heir to the Spartan throne, who is also afflicted with a broken heart.
In short this makes an interesting companion piece to Ford’s better known revenge tragedy ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ and certainly brings out his very modern fascination with psychology and mental extremes.
The Broken Heart
Plays at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until Saturday 18 April 2015
Box office 020 7401 9919Last modified: April 7, 2021