Thursday, 9 February 2017

Theatre review: The White Devil

The Swanamaker launched with The Duchess of Malfi and now returns to the convoluted plots of John Webster for The White Devil - a play that's always failed to make much of a lasting impression on me, and although well-done I don't think Annie Ryan's production will change that too much. Joseph Timms plays Flamineo, who's so sick of not being rich he's willing to pimp out his married sister Vittoria (Kate Stanley-Brennan) to the wealthy Duke of Brachiano (Jamie Ballard.) But Brachiano becomes so enamoured of Vittoria he has her husband and his own wife murdered so they can be together. It backfires when Vittoria is accused of the murders and sent to a home for repentant prostitutes. While the family try to get their good name back, the dead Duchess' brother Francisco (Paul Bazely) plots revenge on Brachiano and all those who helped him.

Coming in at two-and-a-half hours, the production has presumably made some cuts to the text (the dramaturg is Michael West.) Brevity is always welcome, although in this case it may have made Webster's plot feel even more disjointed than it already is.


Timms jumps in with both feet to play the villain - or at least the most villainous of a largely unsympathetic bunch - although at the start he hugely overdoes one of my least favourite tropes in Jacobethan acting, the emphatic gesture to the crotch to make it clear he's talking about sexytimes. Ballard goes weirdly shrill at several points in his performance, but Stanley-Brennan makes for a steely Vittoria and, with a couple of very quick costume changes, Fergal McElherron gives distinctive personalities to his two roles as cuckolded husband Camillo and noble-turned-pirate Lodovico.


There's a touch of steampunk to Jamie Vartan's designs, and Tom Lane's music offers up some eerie and unexpected moments, but the most notable technical facet to me was the use of candlelight - it's been a couple of years since I've seen a show in the Swanamaker experiment this much with how many candles are lit in different scenes and where, and what that can do to the atmosphere.


But with this being the third production of the play I've seen, I think I just don't like The White Devil that much. Its plot feels like generic revenge and counter-revenge to me, and death-by-poisoned-helmet just doesn't have the kitsch value of death-by-poisoned-bible, at least not as staged here - although death-by-throwing-off-a-balcony is a highlight. After watching this production I looked back at my review of the last RSC version, and I'm clearly describing the same plot there, but almost nothing rang a bell tonight except the corrupt cardinal (Garry Cooper) becoming Pope. A decent production but it does nothing to make me like the play.

The White Devil by John Webster is booking in repertory until the 16th of April at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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