Maria Aberg’s last production for the RSC, the modern dress King John turned out to be critically controversial, but it persuaded me that King John was a better, more interesting play than I had previously thought. Her modern dress productiion of John Webster’s The White Devil leads me to think that this play is much less good than I had thought before. Part of the problem comes from the cutting, part from the modern dress and part from the decision to play Flamineo (called Flaminio in the programme and the RSC cast list) as female.
In King John the Bastard was played by a female. That decision created a range of extra layers. A female Flamineo (Flaminio?) created nothing. If Aberg directs Othello I don’t want to see it; presumably Iago will be female, with a lesbian wife.
The point of modern dress productions is to make clear that the play has something to say to us about now. I thought King John did. I couldn’t figure out what was being said about us now in this White Devil, though. At one moment I thought we were getting a glimpse of American interference in the Middle East but it turned out that that was me rather than the production. Some of modern dress was very odd. A minor character seemed to be wearing an outfit from a Kylie video. The Cardinal wore a scarlet jacket, white trousers, black shoes and a big cross until he became Pope at which point he was arrayed in a ridiculous meringue. There were large numbers of costume changes but without much significance, I thought, except to make some of the very cute male actors look cute in different clothes. I couldn’t always relate the decisions to the play.
Upstage was a balcony and under it a light box which was several locations – a night club (why?), bits of court, the House of the Convertites, the location for Bracchiano’s coffin among them. It provided another separate location 0n stage but loose dumbshows in it were sometimes distracting. Not as distracting as the ‘music’, though. There was the thud of a beat underneath much of the dialogue early on and dirge music distracting from the dialogue later in the play. It was a shame that the director didn’t seem to trust the words to have power on their own, because many of Webster’s words are very fine indeed, particularly the passages where vice and immorality are expounded ironically through lovely pastoral verse. The play is littered with such oxymorons, but the only ones I caught were in the contrasts between what Francisco says and how he says it.
I enjoyed some of the performances. Kirsty Bushell was strong as Vittoria Corombona, opening both parts in her underwear and donning her clothes on stage, providing the audience with an obvious but useful metaphor of moral as well as physical shape changing. The character has sufficient depth and authenticity for me to understand some of her character’s utterances and decisions. Faye Castelow was good as the good Isabella, although I wasn’t quite convinced that her rage was an act. Â Liz Crowther was refreshingly restrained and therefore all the more effective as Cornelia. David Sturzaker played Bracchiano well – here a superficial character with no moral fibre – but I would have liked him and Aberg to have done something to make us understand and maybe even empathise with some of the abrupt changes which Bracchiano exhibits. The most interesting characterisation was in Simon Scardifield’s Francisco whose change into villain was shown by his discarding his spectacles. I got very weary of Laura Elphinstone’s northern accented Flaminio [sic.]. I didn’t understand the character, I couldn’t hear everything she said and I found her swaying tiresome.
I guess the decision to make David Rintoul’s Cardinal Monticelso the loudest character on stage must have been a deliberate one. Rintoul has a lovely voice.
I should mention Giovanni, played very well by Oscar Webster the night I saw it. Giovanni is the only moral centre in the play. It was a shame that his suit was so baggy, though.
The RSC’s trailer for this production is full of blood and gore. There is mercifully very little in the production – indeed, less than I have seen before. There were things I didn’t understand about the blood, too, though. Why does a poisoned helmet produce so much blood for Bracchiano when he’s a ghost and why does a poisoned picture produce so much quasi-menstrual blood?
The White Devil is one of the most important Jacobean plays. If you haven’t seen it you should make sure that you do. If you have seen it, then one of the other plays in this otherwise splendid season might be a better bet. A night or two at Moss Cottage will enrich your stay even more.