Review: THE WHITE DEVIL, Shakespeare's Globe

John Webster is not what you could ever describe as a subtle writer. His bloody themes of lust, revenge and tragedy are overt and unflinching. The White Devil is based on an extraordinary true-life story in the Venetian court, where Duke Bracciano decides to seduce Vittoria with the help of her brother Flamineo, who is motivated by social mobility and power. The fact that both characters are already married seems no barrier. The result is an intoxicating and decadent game of power play and lust that leads to murder, revenge and the destruction of their very existence.

As with Webster's other famous play, The Duchess of Malfi, there is little nuance. The desire to attain power, no matter what the cost, is not delicate or restrained. Yet it's not always an easy play to follow; Webster's text can meander and there are numerous sub-plots and characters to contend with. Director Annie Ryan and dramaturg Michael West have made some large cuts and edits to the original text to help a modern audience get to grips with the play. It's largely successful and the result is a highly dystopian vision and also a disturbing reflection on today's political and sociAl Anger and disruption.

The breathtaking misogyny is maintained; how the church and state define the role and position of women - they are commodities and any expression of sexuality is a dangerous thing and must be contained. Social order, class, revenge and justice are all explored.

The cast is generally superb. Kate Stanley-Brennan is majestic as Vittoria. At her trial, for crimes actually committed by men, Stanley-Brennan speaks eloquently and defiantly, grasping at the bar of the dock and commanding the stage full of accusing men.

Joseph Timms is surprising as the socially ambitious and murderous Flamineo. He is louche, funny and cheeky, a little like a Jacobean Russell Brand, especially with his 'mockney' accent. Timms really gets under the skin and revels in the role of corrupt sociopath, but brings out all the potential satire of the role in his irreverent asides and mocking intonation.

Comedic intonation is not what you would associate with the character of Bracciano, but Jamie Ballard skilfully wrings out acerbic meaning from every syllable, often to very amusing effect.

Garry Cooper is dangerous and still as Monticelso. Sinister in dark glasses, he prowls around the stage as Cardinal and then Pope. His standout section comes at Vittoria's trial, where his accusatory and degrading language is delivered with complete authority and unnerving directness.

This play is a revenge tragedy but also highlights the corruption of society through mockery and satire. Ryan has definitely made this a play of two halves; the first is firmly rooted in satire and, at times, is hilarious. The conjuring scene, where Bracchiano and Anna Healy's brilliant Necromancer foresee the deaths of both Vittoria's husband Camilo and Bracciano's wife Isabella, is played out like a silent film with very exaggerated motions and facial expressions, with no real brutality but a lot of comedy.

After the interval, there is a darker tone and any satire becomes more muted; Bracciano's death is particularly vicious and violent. The stage littered with bodies at the end remains sobering and reminds the audience that the play is certainly a tragedy.

Jamie Vartan's design is wonderful and takes full advantage of the sumptuous and highly atmospheric setting of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The prodigious use of candlelight is perfectly judged, allowing the audience to be part of The Shadows and appreciate the gorgeous surroundings of the space. The costumes are not period specific, but part-steampunk, part-Gothic, with rich silks, brocade and leather.

Composer Tom Lane and musical director Stephen Bentley-Klein's use of music is also brilliantly distinctive. It often captures and heightens the atmosphere of danger through disquieting chords and spine-tingling single notes. The wedding scene of Vittoria and Bracciano in Act II morphs beautifully from a traditional Jacobean processional piece into lighthearted jazz as the wedding party takes place.

This version of The White Devil is unexpected, rich in parody and beautifully acted. A treat for the eyes and ears.

The White Devil is at Shakespeare's Globe until 16 April

Photo credit: Marc Brenner


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