Reviews Stratford-upon-Avon Published 7 August 2014

The White Devil

Swan Theatre ⋄ 30th July - 29th November 2014

An exceptionally brutal hunt.

Laura Seymour

In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s greatest fear is to be captured and led in triumph: stared at, pawed at, laughed at by the Roman citizens. With her heavy black hair, bold makeup, and square-cut fringe, listening to detailed explanations of why she is a ‘whore’ and a ‘devil’ as paparrazzi flash cameras in her face, Kirsty Bushell’s Vittoria looks for all the world like a Cleopatra who didn’t take the glorious-death route, and who as a consequence is as trapped and arraigned as Cleopatra feared she would be.

This compelling image encapsulates a plroduction which is huge on spectacle and concept alike. The actors move through a symbolically-ridden material world, which divaricates into great richness as they manipulate those symbols with ingenuity and humour. Bracchiano is strangled with a censer as the aromatic smoke rises from it behind his head. His murderer then starts playing Kickmaster with the censer. Vittoria takes aim at her sister with a gun whilst wearing a cute pink top proclaiming ‘I Love You’ in sparkly letters.

Maria Aberg’s adaptation of Webster’s The White Devil interlocks perceptively with other plays in the RSC’s ‘Roaring Girls’ season. The bored glee in the bodies of the cast as they perform a garish disco dance – their faces alive with lascivious hope, their souls clearly crumbling to black earth within them – recalls the mechanically-energetic Maneki-Neko cats of Polly Findlay’s Arden of Faversham, for example.

As Vittoria, Bushell gives a fabulously nuanced peformance. When she is ‘rescued’ by the Duke from the soul-crushing correctional facility he’s partly responsible for her being in, it’d take volumes of writing to detail the tiredness, passion, desire to be loved, and autonomy her look conveys as she progresses from a small (quickly dashed) hopeful smile of welcome to yielding to his unempathetic kisses. Vittoria’s sister Flaminio (which Webster wrote as a male part), played by Laura Elphinstone, comes into her own as a tragic heroine. Simon Scardifeld brings out a pathologically professorial Francisco. The smallest parts are also done wonderfully well; the soldiers guarding Vittoria are perfectly glassy-eyed action-figures: idolised warriors and abased tools of the regime.

Aberg’s production aims to lay bare the brutal conclusions towards which seemingly throwaway remarks like ‘whore’ can be the first step. Pointedly, the partying women gyrating behind redlight district style perspex, designed by Naomi Dawson, are replaced by bruised, pregnant, disturbed women when it becomes a ‘house for penitent whores’. Camillo’s attempt to enjoy a night of bondage behind the perspex (bad things happen behind the perspex, evidently) culminates in his strangulation with the very red ropes with which he’d aimed to subdue his female attackers. This stark embodiment of the idea that men inevitably end up being scuppered and maimed by the same ideological traps they set for women rings true to much of Webster’s verse: when called ‘whore’ by the Cardinal, Vittoria retorts ‘if a man should spit against the wind,| The filth returns in’s face’.

This production teaches us to find signs of the characters’ world’s constraining influence on its female members in Vittoria’s cuff-like bracelet, and the subtle straightjacket-like buckles on her white dress as she faces the paparazzi. The Cardinal (David Rintoul) facing her down looks like sartorially he is stoutly defying the foxhunting ban, and in a way he is leading an exceptionally brutal hunt.

The poisoning of Isabella (Faye Castelow) brings the production’s attention to the nuances of the visual to an unequivocal extreme, constituting the most shokcing 60 seconds of the play by far. Her oddly dainty doe-like jerks give way to vomiting dark blood. Then she bleeds copiously from her white-pajamaed crotch. When she appears as a silent, still very much bloodstained, ghost later on, there are more than a few echoes of Titus Andronicus; she looks like she’s been violently sexually assaulted, and Aberg seems to be using this as an image of how the Duke sees her gendered body as merely an expendable obstacle to his aim to marry Vittoria rather than a person in her own right.

Like all of the intense imagistic moments in this production, Isabella’s death could never have been carried off without superb acting. Primped and fragile, Castelow’s Isabella clearly places all of her strength in resolute, unconditional devotion to her husband.

The production’s piling up of various instances of violence against women, all of which take place behind the perspex (seriously, I thought by the second half the characters would have realised that Behind the Perspex is a bad place to be) is potentially problematic. One essay in the programme discusses statistics about sexual violence against women and creates a broad analogy with sex work – an analogy that many sex workers and sex workers’ rights organisations are specifically vocal about disputing. But I felt that performance brought much more nuance and power to these moments than ink and paper.

Engrossing and startling as an intense transparent-walled prison experiment, this is a production that still manages to be funny. There was one unfortunate stage-slap where I could clearly see the enraged Duke slapping his own forearm instead of Vittoria’s cheek. But that’s no more than a slapped wrist for a play that focuses so undauntedly on the implications of discipline, punishment, and hypocritical control.


Laura Seymour

Laura Seymour is writing a PhD thesis on cognitive theory and Shakespeare in performance. Her poems have appeared in several journals such as 'Iota', 'Envoi', 'Ambit', and 'Magma'. Her book 'The Shark Cage' won the 2013 Cinnamon Press debut collection prize and is forthcoming in 2015.

The White Devil Show Info

Directed by Maria Aberg

Cast includes Joseph Arkley, Peter Bray, Elspeth Brodie, Kirsty Bushell, Colin Anthony Brown, Faye Castelow, Keir Charles, Liz Crowther, Laura Elphinstone, Mark Holdgate, Lizzie Hopley, Joan Iyiola, Tony Jayawardena, Michael Moreland, Ken Nwosu, David Rintoul, Simon Scardifield, Jay Simpson, David Sturzaker, Harvey Virdi




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