The White Devil
16 August 2014
A few weeks ago, the RSC took the unprecedented step, at least in my own case, of writing to their audience about their forthcoming Maria Aberg production of John Webster’s The White Devil (now playing in the Swan Theatre) and warning:
“Webster’s brilliant, satiric and violent play has historically challenged audiences with its graphic series of murders, and as we work on the show in the rehearsal room its becoming clear our production will be no different…
In Maria Aberg we have engaged a director who is approaching the play with a strong desire to connect this 400 year old text with contemporary audiences…this involves locating the play in a modern setting which has the potential to make the scenes of violence more immediate for audiences.
That being the case I wanted to write to you to advise that our production will contain scenes of a violent and sexual nature that some audiences may find shocking. No new material has been added to the text, it is simply that by locating the play to a contemporary setting, Webster’s necessarily violent and passionate piece will feel as immediate and challenging as it did to its first audiences in 1612.”
To misquote the Bard: methinks the RSC doth warnest too much.
Or, more accurately : methinks the RSC doth warnest about the wrong thing.
This modern, bleached, clean surfaces and multi-media screen-dominating Aberg version of Webster does not drown in blood, is not charged with violence (sexual or otherwise) and is more unfathomably incomprehensible than it is confronting. Yes, there is a strangulation (and elsewhere a neck-twist) which is difficult to watch but nothing more grim than scenes in other recent productions on RSC stages.
As each act opens, Kirsty Bushell (playing the carnal adulteress, Vittoria) strides to the front of the stage, making deliberate eye contact with particular audience members, contact she holds for just long enough to be uncomfortable. She is barely clothed: bra, matronly briefs (the kind a schoolboy might imagine a Nun could wear), hair in a wig cap, barefoot. Vulnerable. But steely. Slowly, she dresses, entrapping the audience in intimate complicity. When the wig goes on, the “action” commences, the fourth wall breached and irreparable. In the second Act, she takes time to insert a full-of-fake-blood medical pouch into her briefs, signalling, conspiratorially, that she will bleed “down there” sometime in Act Two. All the while, coolly staring into the eyes of “Why me?” patrons.
Disquieting and intriguing.
But the effect, each time, is fleeting as the performance becomes swamped in loud pumping music, video projections which centre on blood or aspects of the female body, curious jerky “dances” by the company, an overwhelming Euro-trash nightclub feel from the set and the sense that this might be a fantasy episode of Footballers’ Wives. There is sensory overload, disorienting and, frankly, bizarre.
What suffers most in all this is the story-telling. Motivations, the subtlety of action and reaction, the depth of corruption, the layered motives for revenge and murder: all are obfuscated in pursuit of some notion that a contemporary setting will ensure immediacy and challenge.
Another key directorial decision, to swap the gender of Vittoria’s brother, is disastrously unsound. There is no difficulty with great female actors playing male characters; but there needs to be a very good reason to justify altering the sex of a character the author has created. Aberg has form in this department: her production of King John featuring a female Bastard. It wasn’t effective then and it is catastrophic here.
Essential to Webster’s play is the sense of the male characters using and abusing, controlling, “protecting” and, ultimately, slaughtering Vittoria and Isabella, the wife of Vittoria’s lover (here played by Faye Castelow). Simplistically, Isabella represents the patriarchal notion of the “good wife” and Vittoria the “bad wife”. Adding a further central female character does nothing to illuminate the play and it’s points. Nor does it appear to have anything useful to say about misogyny.
Castelow’s clipped, dull, largely one-note performance pounds a further nail into the coffin of the conceit. If you choose to make Flaminio a woman, then she has to be a remarkable one; a strong, fearless, calculating rival to the men in the play who are buoyant on traditional, patriarchal or religious power but also a very different woman to her sister. Castelow opts for low-key, almost androgynous ambiguity. The result is practically pointless in every way and robs the play of a great deal of its power.
For a play whose every path is built on lust and betrayal, this production is singularly lacking any sense of carnality or visceral passion. There is a lot of tedious talking but not much action or interplay. And no tension or immediacy.
It’s like watching a censored propaganda film: you have a clear idea what to expect, but it is presented in a way which dumbfounds those expectations. The male actors are, across the board, underpowered and underwhelming. Liz Crowther’s Cornelia is excruciating and David Rintoul imbues Monticelso with all the finesse and nuance of a crucifix-wearing Dalek.
Bushell is the best of a disappointing cast, but she never gets the chance to shine as she should because of the goal posts which Aberg has chosen to frame this sport-metaphor heavy production.
It is bewildering. The last production Aberg helmed for the RSC was a simply glorious As You Like It. If only the skill and insight she showed there in telling an old story in a fresh, arresting fashion had been brought to bear here.