The White Devil
by John Webster
Directed by Annie Ryan
Text editor / Dramaturg – Michael West
Designer- Jamie Vartan
Composer – Tom Lane
A Shakespeare’s Globe Production
The Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe
Saturday 4th February 2017, 14.30
The plot is convoluted enough without insufficient information in the programme cast list. A cast list should include more than just names. It has ‘Monticelo’ rather than Cardinal Monticello. Later Pope Paul IV. I have corrected it below.
Jamie Ballard – Bracciano, a Duke, husband of Isabella, in love with Vittoria.
Paul Bazely – Francisco De Medici – Duke of Florence; in Act V he is disguised as the Moor, Mulinassar.
Garry Cooper – Cardinal Monticelo, later Pope Paul IV.
Anna Healey– Cornelia, Mother to Vittoria, Flamineo, and Marcello
Molly Lambert – Giovanni, Brachiano’s son by Isabella.
Fergal McElherron – Lodovico, an Italian Count in love with Isabella / Castillo, Vittoria’s husband, and nephew of Cardinal Monticelo.
Mercy Ojelade– Isabella, Francisco De Medici’s sister; first wife of Brachiano,
Shanya Rafaat – Zanche, Moor servant to Vittoria; in love with Flamineo, then Francisco
Kate Stanley-Brennan – Vittorio Corombona – a Venetian lady, sister of Flamineo. first married to Camillo – afterwards to Brachiano
Joseph Timms – Flamineo, Vittoria’s brother. Brachiano’s secretary.
Sarah Vevers – Hortensio, an officer / Lawyer / Servant
Jamael Westman– Marcello, Vittoria’s younger brother. / Ensemble
Stephen Bentley-Klein – MD / violin / hammered dulcimer / trumpet / guitar
Mark Bousie – accordion
Maddie Cutter- cello
The Wanamaker Playhouse production comes soon after the 2014 RSC version at The Swan, with its larger cast, disco, mirrors, lights, dance, gallons of gore and a gender switch so that Flaminio became Flaminea, Vittorio’s sister.
How briefly can you summarize the plot? Bracciano (an Orsino) and Francisco (a Medici) are dukes in the Italy of Machiavelli. Bracciano is married to Francisco’s sister, Isabella. However he lusts after the gorgeous Vittorio. Vittorio has a shady Venetian past … you didn’t need to say much more in 1609 … Venice was renowned for its number of courtesans and whores. A century earlier, in 1509, it was estimated that there were 11,000 whores in Venice, or 10% of the population. A Venice girl was the Essex girl in travellers’ tales of the time. As chance would have it, Vittorio’s cunning brother Flamineo is Bracciano’s secretary or PA or whatever. Flamineo plots to get Vittorio and Bracciano together.
Now I never really got who Marcello was on the night, but to twist it a bit more, he’s Francisco’s secretary as well as brother to Vittorio and Flamineo.
Bracciano (Jamie Ballard) listens to Vittorio’s (Kate Stanley-Brennan) dream
While pretending to be chaste (and white) the devil in Vittorio has her recount a dream in which her husband (Camillo) and Bracciano’s wife (Isabella) are killed, putting the thought into Bracciano’s head. So he has them killed, as you do if you’re a Renaissance ruler. Unfortunately, Camillo is the favourite nephew of the powerful Cardinal Monticelo. So Bracciano and Vittorio have made two powerful enemies … Francisco and the Cardinal. Hang on though, Count Ludovico, banished at the start, turns out to have been in love with Isabella too. So he’s after revenge. From then on we’re into poisoning, stabbing and shooting in another normal month in 16th century Rome and Padua.
Vittorio (Kate Stanely-Brennan) and her brother Flamineo (Joseph Timms). Hmm, they seem very friendly
I was keen to see the play stripped back closer to its origins, which should be a given at the Wanamaker Playhouse with its small stage and intimate candlelit reproduction of a Jacobean indoor theatre. In fact, they didn’t go for Jacobean costume, but it didn’t matter. The costume was described as Victorian punk in one review – a reference mainly to Bracciano’s semi-Mohican, and Vittorio and Zanche’s costumes. Isabella was in an almost Georgian long dress. I was trying to place the intended era, and it came me in the murder scene, which was watched by Bracciano through a brass Victorian viewer of some kind, with a “brass projector” at the foot of the stage. It was Jules Verne. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Fantasy 19th century. It worked.
There were virtually no props … just a balcony wheeled on. No seats. No tables. No beds … a bare stage. A coat of arms with flowers below was hung on the balcony to mark the transition from Rome to Padua where Bracciano and Vittorio have got married. They’ve made the candelabra starker and made the stage black. The use of candles throughout was very good indeed … if you haven’t been to the Wanamaker, candle lighting and quaffing is a major element of productions.
Again, the Globe has a dramaturg. There are lots of cuts, some modern interventions of a word or two, and to my memory a very useful addition of names when addressing people early on.
I had issues with Webster’s play last time, and they haven’t been resolved. Webster has just three buttons: REVENGE – JEALOUSY – LUST. You want some other emotions to come in at some point. The only addition I saw was when Cornelia watches her son Flamino murder his brother, then covers up for him. I guess that extra button is MISGUIDED MOTHERLY LOVE.
The other issue, which is worse even in the Duchess of Malfi is that Webster failed to grasp a basic principle. One that Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet might have taught him. it’s basic.:
Main character dead … go straight to the end. Play’s over. A final speech or two, but make them short.
OK, Shakespeare screwed that one up totally in Julius Caesar. Webster didn’t grasp it at all. Once Bracciano is gone, the audience is getting ready to go home. Vittorio holds our interest, but after her death, forget it. Curtain.
I was pleased to see restraint in stage blood. 2013 to 2015 was the OTT era on stage blood. In fact, when it’s down to a small stain on the shirt only visible as the character is dragged off, I can imagine the wardrobe department saying “Why bother?” I agree.
Lust is the main emotion, and played lustily rather than sexily. Flamineo (Joseph Timms) was given an array of genital pointing, hand miming and gesticulation that added humour, but also distracted. The last time I saw so much dick indicating and masturbation miming was in Headlong’s Romeo & Juliet where Mercutio couldn’t stop. That’ll be bad for his eyesight, I thought at the time. Both Vittorio and Zanche get a bit of gesturing downwards too, and as for Zanche kneeling down to undo her intended’s trousers at face level… well, I might take kids to Shakespeare, but wouldn’t have thought of taking them to Webster anyway.
Reviews mention the surprising amount of comedy in the production. A lot is in between lines … Jamie Ballard as Bracciano is an expert at interjecting sounds, or just a responsive thoughtful “Wow!” Joseph Timms as Flamineo works very hard to extract humour too. The wide boy Estuary accent helps.
The murder of Camillo, by throwing him from a balcony, is played for comedy. It’s set up with Bracciano watching from on high (the actual balcony) through a viewer. The gestures of the murderers are silent film, as well as propelling Camillo into the stage trap.
OK, the production gets plenty of dark and moody in the lighting. I liked the attempts to play the murders for laughs.
The important gun shots at the end sounded like ring caps. Very weedy for stage shots, and I was in two minds whether that was playing for comedy or not. I hope so.
Jamie Ballard as Bracciano
Regulars have bemoaned the break up of what seemed to be the “Globe’s repertory group of actors” in 2016 and 2017. The inspired casting here was importing RSC talent in the lead role, Bracciano. Jamie Ballard was the best Angelo I’ve seen in Measure for Measure (RSC 2012) and the first actor who made the title role, Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice (RSC 2015) the lead role in the play. Bracciano is the rich kid. Never lost his sense of entitlement. You want it, you take it.
Kate Stanley-Brennan was a perfect choice for Vittorio, excellent in seducing Bracciano to murder, as well as fiercely and convincingly defending her innocence (though we all know she’s as guilty as hell) in the court scene.
The programme’s interview with director Annie Ryan was the first in what will be a LONG line in 2017 of referencing Trump and Hilary. She says:
I was trying to achieve a 50/50 gender balance … which I’m happy to say we have. at one stage in the process … the actress playing Cornelia was also going to double as Monticelo, the cardinal. The characters never meet so it’s technically possible. But after Trump was elected, I thought, No, we need that message to have no filter. It has to feel like those debates: Hilary standing there and this monster prowling behind her like a wolf.
Vittorio (Kate Stanley Brennan) holds her own with Cardinal Monticelo (Garry Cooper). Francisco, Duke of Florence (Paul Bazely) looks on.
The scene Ms Ryan references is the most powerful scene in the play, where Vittorio is in court, accused of adultery and plotting murder, and faces the Duke of Florence and The Cardinal. Kate Stanley-Brennan’s performance as Vittorio here is outstanding, but it works so well because Garry Cooper as the aggressive, very male Cardinal is so menacing and wolf like. She gets packed off to the Home for Penitent Whores. Having the Cardinal played by a woman in a play where the oddity of such a gender switch was not written in, would have been a really dumb, awful idea. Period. We all have bad ideas. Thank goodness that one was rejected. Garry Cooper was made for the role.
Garry Cooper as the Cardinal, Mercy Ojelade as Isabella, Joseph Timms as Flamineo
Having the young son, Giovanni, played by a young woman (Molly Lambert) works … it’s the way we always did boys’ voices on audio tapes. Giovanni has the closing speech in the play, necessarily as virtually everyone else is dead, and you need an adult actor, not a young boy, to deliver it. So that was the right choice.
Isabella (Mercy Ojelade) pleads with Bracciano
Personally, I think having a black Isabella with a white brother does not help us through the tangled relationships of the plot … if I were going for ethnic balance, I’d have made both black. But when family ties are crucial to following the plot, I’m not colour-blind. In fact, Mercy Ojelade was inspired casting. Her long Isabella speech was very much in the mood of her Hermia role in the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Play For The Nation last year. We saw her right at the start of that run, and then right at the end, and she really grew tremendously in stage authority during the run. Ideal casting for Isabella BUT then having made that decision, I’d have wanted to match her brother. Paul Bazely’s Francisco was very strong. Fabulous performance … but physical casting confused relationship when it could have been a useful indicator.
Isabella and Francisco: both excellent, but they don’t look like siblings
Anna Healey, as Cornelia, is the mother of Vittorio, Flaminio and Marcello. She has a mountain to climb. Her performance is good in every way, but in such a confusing play, having a mother who from my seat looked younger than all three of her strapping offspring was bizarre. It may be a tribute to her youthful looks, but if she was twenty years older in real life than the actors playing her kids, I want some of whatever she’s taking. there is an Anna Healy online who graduated from RADA in 1989. It can’t be her … or can it? We have grown used to being gender blind and colour blind in the theatre, but being “age blind” is surely reserved for drama school productions.
Fergal McElherron brings much needed comic relief to the part of Camillo, the cuckolded husband of the gorgeous Vittorio. It’s helped by his short stature. The trouble is, it makes him so distinctive that we never have any doubt that he is doubling as the vicious and vengeful Count Ludovico. He does both parts so well, and Camillo, dying so early, is always going to double … but the contrast in roles was problematic.
I’m going for three star. That’s my comment on Webster rather than on an interesting production and excellent performances. I don’t think any production could ever list the basic Webster material on the page any higher. It’s a long run and it utilises the darkness of the Wanamaker Playhouse superbly. Three means “go and see it.”
We had two empty seats next to us in a great position … Back row, Lower Gallery. After the interval there were four more vacant. It always happens at the Wanamaker. Is it sheer discomfort? The back rows have a wall to lean against so is as good as it gets. I cant think anyone could have objected to the play in any way. Though ticket agencies don’t access the Globe, I do wonder if it’s like the West End, corporate purchased tickets for foreign visitors?
Three excellent essays. Good synopsis, so generally up to the Globe’s high standards, but a good synopsis does not replace an explanatory cast list, especially in such a convoluted play.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Michael Billington, The Guardian ****
Mark Shenton, The Stage ****
Paul Taylor, The Independent ****
Claire Albee, Daily Telegraph, ***
David Jays, Sunday Times, ***
Sarah Hemmings, Financial Times ***
Nick Wells, Radio Times ***
Andrez Lukowski, Time Out ***
LINKS TO REVIEWS ON THIS BLOG:
THE WHITE DEVIL
The White Devil by John Webster, Royal Shakespeare Company
Privates on Parade, Grandage Season 2013 (Private Flowers)