THE WHITE DEVIL
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 23rd August, 2014
John Webster’s revenge tragedy is given the Maria Aberg treatment in this brash production. I say ‘treatment’ because many of the ideas are familiar from a previous production (her King John). There is a contemporary setting, contemporary costumes and too much music – loud, pulsating music to which the cast perform a variation on the Macarena. Chiefly though is the re-use of the gimmick of giving the villain a sex-change. Here Flaminio is a woman, albeit one that dresses in a masculine style. The idea, I’m supposing, is that by dressing and behaving as a man, Flaminio avoids the usual fate of women. In this garb, she also perpetuates that way of treating women (and indeed there are women in society today who uphold the anti-feminist agenda), but she is nothing more than an evil, murderous lesbian. In short, the sex swap doesn’t work. I wanted to enjoy Laura Elphinstone’s somewhat Ant-and-Dec-esque performance but was too irked by the director’s choice.
The music is annoying – oh, goody: another party scene! – and the contemporary clothing does not help distinguish characters. Cardinal Monticelso (the marvellous David Rintoul – I could listen to him read till receipts) is undermined by his Butlins red coat. Simon Scardifield’s Francisco sports a Frank Spencer beret. And why cast the mighty Tony Jayawardena and give him nothing to do?
Leading lady Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell) is a fading party girl who must be punished for living it up and giving men what they want. Ratty wigs and crumpled tutus do her no favours. In the court scene, she comes as Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, but the tone of this key scene is uneven – Bushell gives us one minute the victim, at the mercy of male attitudes and double standards, and the next she is offhandedly sarcastic. It doesn’t quite gel. Occasionally, the power of Webster’s drama comes through. Faye Castelow’s Isabella has a powerful scene and a messy death – this is how Webster should be done!
I would have preferred period costume. Let the themes and argument of the play speak for itself, rather than bending and shaping it to fit some agenda that obfuscates the action. “Take my sword,” says someone, handing over a flick-knife. No.