Sitting in the Swan Reading Room, a couple of hours before The White Devil began – with a wonderfully edited copy of the text on my lap (and a forgotten Americano in my hand…) – I was struck by the major stylistic differences of Webster and Shakespeare. John Webster’s writing, in some ways, is more direct, and somehow less ‘even’ or poetic; and the references to both ancient myths and current fashions seem to come thicker and faster. What can appear dense, lumpy and convoluted on the page springs to life on the stage, though!
Utilizing the wonderful company currently presenting both The Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham, it is a neat trick by director Maria Aberg – as part of this ‘Roaring Girls’ season; and in a play that has misogyny at its centre: “Trust a woman? Never, never…” – to cast Laura Elphinstone as (male) plotter-in-chief Flaminio: emerging (especially in the second half) as the crux, perhaps the chief “White Devil” of the title (although almost no-one here can escape the accusation that there is a deeper, baser reality at their heart than the generally good – pure or white – way they depict themselves; although the term may also “illuminate the impossible position of the female character in tragedy”).
As the complex story emerges in the first half, it is David Rintoul, as Cardinal Monticelso – and later Pope (a nice echo of last year’s stunning production of A Life of Galileo) – who dominates proceedings. Natural and potent – particularly in the trial of Vittoria – he struts the stage menacingly; although Kirsty Bushell, as the accused, gives as good as she gets: “personate[s] masculine virtue”; and stands resolutely in defence of both her sexuality, and any involvement in the preceding murders.
These deaths are enacted as ‘dumb shows’ – a powerful way of involving the audience in the action: yet keeping both on- and off-stage witnesses complicit (as in Hamlet…), but, apparently, impotent. And the continual use of such ‘split stages’ – both vertically, using the Swan’s balconies; and horizontally, stepping back, behind a glass screen under a virtual proscenium arch – both by Webster, in his directions; and Maria Aberg, in her directing – convincingly brings greater meaning: demonstrating both correlations and differences in the separate groups of characters.
The night I saw it, Edward Buckley played the child role of Giovanni, making his RSC debut – and with great feeling – often as emotive, mute witness; but also revealed as a quiet, driven force of revenge (and developing the power to enact it): a small, still centre in the mayhem that surrounds him. As always, with this generous troupe – confirmed by repeat viewings of both The Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham – there is no-one letting the side down, however small their part – all lending equal skill and credence to their characters; all equally committed; all accomplished and proficient in their stage presence.
The play is on at the Swan Theatre until the end of November. If you don’t mind a bit of “violence and scenes of a sexual nature”, then I would heartily recommend it!