• Drama
  • By John Webster
  • Directed by Maria Aberg, produced by The Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Cast Includes: Kirsty Bushell, Keir Charles, Alura Elphinstone, Peter Bray, Liz Crowther, David Sturzaker, Fay Castelow, Simon Scardifield, David Rintoul
  • Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
  • Until 29th November 2014
  • Review by Mel Cooper
  • 20 August 2014
The White Devil
3.0Reviewers rating

My main problem with this production of The White Devil was the turning of Flaminio, the brother of Vittoria and secretary to Bracciano into a woman (sometimes irritatingly played by Laura Elphinstone, made to act as if she is a woman who would much rather be a man). It certainly puts at the centre of this production the questions of sexual politics, male brutality and lust, and also of misogyny and female identity, as the director has claimed. However, it also unbalances the relationship between Kirsty Bushell’s amazingly powerful and troublingly appealing Vittoria and the brother, Flaminio, who is now a sister. It makes no sense, even with updating the visuals to the present day, Flaminio to be the secretary of Bracciano (a suitably virile and complex David Sturzaker) and it unbalances that relationship too, because of introducing a potential sexual element. I could go on with other things that I found irritating; but then again, I suppose you cannot expect sensitivity from a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy; and it certainly is an interesting concept. As you watch it, it is so well played and the timing is so good, that you simply accept the new “given”.

Also interesting were the visual references to the film La Grande Bellezza. We are in the Rome of the present-day dolce vita with a text from the Rome of the Counter-Reformation. The production seems to be suggesting that not much has changed.

This is certainly a good-enough and well-thought out production. Kirsty Bushell is outstanding and compellingly memorable as Vittoria – intelligent, defiant, sexy, provocative, and outrageous – and Faye Catelow is also outstanding as a troubled, tremulous and touchingly vulnerable Isabella. The men are very strongly played, especially David Sturzaker’s Bracciano and Simon Scardifield’s manipulative and vengeful Francisco. Yet another RSC show done in modern dress; this archetypal Jacobean tale of lust, betrayal and revenge is gripping throughout. The clarity of this production is exemplary and one of its strengths – you actually can follow all the convolutions of the plot and machinations of the many characters with ease.

The production deals clearly with one of Webster’s obsessions: how thin the veneer of civilization is that is masking the savagery that lies just beneath. The trial scene is particularly powerful and Kirsty Bushell conveys every nuance of her character. I suspect age will not wither nor custom stale her talent and I would love to see her undertake everything from Beatrice through Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra. For me she is the star of a memorable, if somewhat flawed, evening. The conceptual background to the production is certainly strong, but for me it felt more as if the director, Maria Aberg, was imposing her vision rather than interpreting the text.

The production drove me back to the text and was enjoyable and stimulating on its own terms; but it also seemed to me to have somewhat limiting agendas, despite the very strong realization of those ideas.

About The Author

Canadian-born Mel Cooper came to the UK to study at Oxford and stayed, captivated by the culture and history of the welcoming and tolerant society of Britain.
He founded the magazine Opera Now. He was a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting and a member of the team that started Classic FM on which he broadcast shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature.

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