The Broken Heart

by John Ford / 2013, Webber Douglas Studio, Central / Directed by Ben Naylor with Jenny Ogilvie / Set design by Zoe Josephine Payne / Costume design by Nadege Adlam / Lighting by Edmund McKay / Music and sound by Thomas Moked Blum and Luke Pajak / Fight direction by Rachel Bown-Williams

We know relatively little about John Ford (b. 1586). Ironically, given his status as one of the English Renaissance stage’s primary chroniclers of mortality, we don’t even know when he died; after the publication of his last plays, he simply fades from our sight. Exit Ford.

Tradition has largely seen Ford as not exactly a barrel of laughs; owing part in perhaps to the one tiny piece of character detail we have – the epigrammatic description, “Deep in a dump alone Jacke Forde was gat / With folded arms and melancholy hat” – as much as from his writing. It is true that his greatest plays are mostly pretty grim; however he also wrote two successful romantic comedies which survive, chronicle history and masque. And even his most austere or gruesome plays have flashes of comedy: timing, wit, and Ford’s characteristic gaze, both sympathetically distanced and subversively ironical.

The Broken Heart is a strange, tough, gloomy play; perhaps the first truly subtextual drama in the English language, in that what characters repress is as important, or more important, than what they say. It is also a proto-feminist play, exploring the inner crises of the strong – and flawed – main female characters, unable either to resist patriarchal oppression nor escape it. And it is also an early study of depression, of the self-aware modern mind under Renaissance pressures; and perhaps one of the first literary treatments of anorexia.

This production of Ford’s psychologically violent Baroque tragedy counterpointed early Caroline costume with a modernist, cage-like set and a bold, opulent lighting scheme; the cage was echoed too in the use of corsetry and visual imagery of the ribs (with all the attendant Edenic associations). The distinctly Early Modern plot drivers of courtly intrigue and ambition, and the misogyny of a martial culture, were played with deep inner intensity in a setting rich in symbolism, drawing on the art of Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Rembrandt and Vermeer.

As the pictures above suggest, this production was about looking at and being looked at, the voyeur and the viewed. The cast remained on stage throughout: witnessing, judging, gazing.

The music, too, combined period and contemporary: live digital sound by Reformat‘s Luke Pajak clashing with and manipulating live performance by Baladino‘s Thomas Moked Blum combining Greek and baroque themes on guitar, bouzouki and violin.

Photography by Luke Pajak