In the past few months, women have reclaimed the term ‘nasty woman’, which gained notoriety when Trump targeted the phrase at Clinton during an election debate. Since then, women in their masses have been wearing t-shirts embossed with those words, spitting poetry embracing the title and applauding other ‘nasty’ women around them.
The phenomenon of transforming an insult into a badge of honour is complicated, but in this instance has proved empowering. It also provides an interesting backdrop to think about Annie Ryan’s production of John Webster’s The White Devil at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Emma Rice’s welcome letter to the piece indicates rebellion bubbling just beneath the surface. A couple of pages into the programme, Rice’s joyous, defiant face beams from the left page, whilst a written message is nestled on the right. The header reads:
(n.) 4 A human being of diabolical character or qualities; an exceptionally cruel or wicked person.
The definition appears absolute, it sits alone at the top of the page; white writing on black paper. It also strikes a harsh contrast to the beaming face that sits to the left. The word ‘love’ follows in the paragraph bellow, accompanied shortly by ‘fierce,’ ‘fabulous,’ and ‘sexual.’ There a certain joie de vivre to her response which could be read as an attempt to reclaim ‘devilish’ attributes, and it works as a fitting introduction to the production itself.
Ryan discards authenticity of setting to set her production in a “dystopian reality that points to a nightmare future.” There are costume indicators that suggest fantasy; the production has a distinct steampunk-meets-Buffy the Vampire Slayer aesthetic. Visually, it’s set apart from typical productions at The Globe, perhaps reflecting Ryan’s feeling that Webster’s work isn’t like that of Shakespeare; in the programme interview with journalist Heather Neill, she suggests that stylistically The White Devil is more akin to Tarantino. She also admits that the play is complicated, and she’s worked with dramaturg Michael West to strip back and simplify the labyrinthine plot where necessary.
In essence, The White Devil explores the ambitions of the Corombona family to rise above their impoverished status by allying themselves with two of the most influential houses of Italy. Jamie Ballard gives a spirited performance as the Duke of Bracciano, who takes a shining to Corombona daughter Vittoria. Kate Stanley-Brennan’s passionate interpretation fuels the character with a complicated ambiguity that allows her to weave through scenes as both a seemingly passive and impassive character. There’s a sense that things happen to her as much as she makes then happen.
Knowing a union between their sister and the Duke would elevate their status, the Corombona brothers, Marcello (Jamel Westman) and Flamineo (Joseph Timms) convince Bracciano to have both his own spouse and Vittoria’s murdered. This plot has a knock on effects for all; a blood bath of revenge ensues. This is a luxuriously depicted exploration of societal corruption, with foul play drenching every pore. The audience is privy to all plots; each character is an open book, happy to claim their full immorality and barter their way upwards through society. It’s hard to recall a sympathetic character in the mix. In his programme article, A Winter’s Snake, Michael West suggests that the White Devil is not any one person, but rather the process of being “endlessly reactive and adaptive, sinuous and deadly.”
Here is a world where all players have blood on their hands to some degree, and Ryan’s complex, sinister production makes it speak directly to a contemporary audience. Referring again to Rice’s note, the desire to embrace the complicated, imperfect self, as long as it has a courageous spirit, is refreshing:
“Let the darkness fall and I will gladly give myself to this challenging and strangely relevant world of fear, intrigue and surprise.”
The White Devil is on at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 16 April 2017. Click here for more details.