The White Devil
by John Webster
Directed by Maria Aberg
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Friday 15th August 2014, evening
Joseph Arkley – Ludovico
Peter Bray – Marcello
Elspeth Brodie – Company
Kirsty Bushell – Vittoria
Colin Anthony Brown – Ambassador
Faye Castelow – Isabella
Keir Charles – Camillo
Liz Crowther – Cornelia
Laura Elphinstone – Flaminio
Lizzie Hopley – Hortensio
Joan Iyiola – Zanche
Tony Jayawardena – Ambassador
Michael Moreland – Company
Ken Nwosu – Carlo
Mark Holgate – Antonelli
David Rintoul – Cardinal Monticelso
Simon Scardifield – Francisco
Jay Simpson – Gasparo
David Sturzaker – Bracciano
Harvey Virdi – Matron
Maria Aberg directed As You Like It at the RSC last year, which I rated in my annual list as the Best Production we saw in 2013. This is another high concept production, setting the play in a decadent modern Italy, probably 1980s by the late disco feel and look. It could be today. Just as with her As You Like It, the principals are shown covered with mud on the programme cover, not that it happens in the play.
Briefly Vittoria is married to Camillo, and Bracciano is married to Isabella. Bracciano and Vittoria get together (all arranged by Flaminio). They fall in love, or perhaps fall in lust, then decide to have their respective spouses murdered. They do, so Francisco, Isabella’s brother, seeks revenge on the plotters. He spends part two disguised(as a Moor in the original, but as a uniformed soldier in sunglasses here). Flaminio, listed as secretary to Bracciano, is the organizing figure for all the mayhem, referred to throughout as a pander(er), i.e. pimp.
Francisco is Duke of Florence so is always seen early on in the company of a cardinal. Francisco is a Medici in the original cast list. Maybe they are both Medicis. Costume is a problem in modern versions, as it needs thought to show position and power in modern dress. Suits and uniforms do it, but varieties of smart casual for the men don’t. The Cardinal’s scarlet jacket, white trousers and crucifix works fine, but it’s impossible to see that Francisco and Bracciano are dukes, therefore important rulers in 17th century Italy, by their costumes. They need some authority indicator, and they don’t get one. They’re just more blokes in disco gear. White John Travolta suits might have worked, with everyone else in short sleeved shirts. The women are dressed like Lady Gaga or Madonna in concert some of the time. The costumes are strong, colourful and interesting, but for the men, may hinder rather than propel the story.
Bracciano with Isabella
The production innovation is making Vittoria Corombona’s scheming sibling, Flaminio, her sister, rather than a brother.
I can’t get rid of the Shakespeare in Love images of Webster. Picking the wings off flies in the film version, and the goggle-eyed back-stabbing little sod in the stage play. I think Tom Stoppard had some insight into the playwright. There is an inexorable progress to any revenge tragedy, which some compare to Quentin Tarantino, but I’d say Michael Winner’s Death Wish series starring Charles Bronson. Tarantino has a degree of wit, irony and apt musical references not seen in Winner. Nor here. I don’t seek out revenge films, where we persuade ourselves that the baddies are getting their just desserts to conceal a love of watching violence. I don’t much like the revenge tragedy genre either, and as with the Duchess of Malfi, you keep inevitably losing the key characters. Vittorio’s husband, Camillo, was one I liked in his guileless enthusiasm. Dead half way through part one strangled by women in bondage outfits. Then Bracciano’s wife, Isabella, is dispatched right after. The Cardinal is a fabulous powerful stage presence, and ends Part One becoming Pope with a storming speech from on high … and in a magnificent costume too. Then we never see him again. It’s not as bad in this respect as the Duchess of Malfi, because we do keep Vittoria and her sister Flaminio (shouldn’t that have been changed to Flaminia?) to the very end. Francisco’s a fascinating plotter leading us through part two, but then his plotting controlling role switches to Lodovico who is his weapon of vengeance at the end.
Vittoria with back projection of her sister, Flaminio
It’s part of the Roaring Girl season, hence switching Flaminio (surely the lead role) to a female, and it worked with Laura Elphinstone a spider like Lesbian character in skintight black jeans and greased back short hair. Another aspect of the production was copious blood between the legs when Isabella and Vittoria were killed. The theme is fear of female sexuality after all. Isabella is poisoned by kissing a poisoned portrait of Bracciano, then the poison brings on a dramatic miscarriage by the look of it. Then one of Vittoria’s key aspects is dressing and putting on a wig on stage in front of the audience three or four times. But before the final death scene, she gets dressed and picks up a plastic tube and sticks it through her knickers before putting on her frilly skirt. At least half the audience see this clearly, no attempt is made to hide it. So we know in advance when she gets knifed horribly, it will be right between the legs, and blood will flow. I wondered about that. She didn’t need to get dressed yet again, and so the shock could have arrived without the prior signalling.
Vittoria. Final costume)
There are some powerful performances. Cornelia is the mother of Vittoria, Flaminio and their brother Marcello. Flaminio murders Marcello in front of her, and Cornelia (Liz Crowther) gives a stunning reaction shuddering from head to foot through her speech. Francisco with his creepy mild Estuary accent has presence. As I said, Cardinal Monticelso, played by David Rintoul in a scarlet sports jacket is terrifying. The scene where Vittoria is sentenced to he House of Convertites, an asylum for penitent whores makes excellent use of the two level glass-walled inner stage, with five or six shocked women in unattractive dingy underclothes, looking as if they are in Bedlam.
Flaminio (foreground). House of Convertites, background.
There’a an excellent wrestling match, at the end of which Bracciano removes his WWF type helmet to reveal a gory face. The inside of the helmet has been poisoned, just as the portrait was, but this time it’s gone to his brain rather than between the legs as happened to Isabella. I couldn’t help a Monty Python reference flitting into my mind, “My brain hurts!” They avoided the old joke about men having their brain between their legs then. He’s dying for a long time after that and goes off for a bit and staggers back on, and still needs strangling ten minutes later to finish him off. Is it a substitute for a duel? There’s wrestling in Maria Aberg’s As You Like It too. John Irving puts wrestling in every novel at some point. Maybe it’s a signature for both.
Bracciano as a ghost
The programme has a lot to say on dance. There are two long strong ensemble dance pieces.I would have liked more … Webster doesn’t do comic relief scenes and so the vigorous dance is a welcome break.
The play was first performed in the winter of 1612 at the Red Bull Theatre, its name predating the caffeine energy drink beloved of youths wishing to stay awake long enough to imbibe more alcohol without falling over. Webster called the audience “donkeys” after it only ran for nine performances which goes well with the image of Red Bull cans in my head. It was successful when revived in 1630. Maybe the Jacobean youths had a point, as the plot is convoluted, the play violent, the deaths all predictable. Actually, the violence should have appealed to them. But it didn’t. The gore count is high, which seems a given in 2014. This was a powerful production, with some memorable scenes and performances, but it didn’t persuade me to like the intrinsic predictable play.
Below the RSC standard. I didn’t think the dance interview revealed much, nor the essay on Catholicism. OK, in 1612 Protestant England and Scotland saw cardinals and popes as pretty vicious figures. The true story Webster got the inspiration from is Italian and involved Borgias and Medicis, so they were right to fear them. The cardinal is tough and nasty, but not the evil hypocrite of the Duchess of Malfi.