The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3
So last week I took some time out from reading surprisingly graphic Victorian erotica in the Bodleian (yay English degrees!), and went on a coach trip to the amazing town of Stratford-upon-Avon to see the RSC’s ‘The White Devil’ in the Swan Theatre. Having studied John Webster’s play for A Level, I was curious to see how this rarely performed play would stand up to a modern audience – the last time it was performed professionally was in 1996.
Admittedly, the reason for this might be the plotline. It’s incredibly melodramatic, and kind of complicated what with all the Italian names – I’ll have a pop at explaining it to you so you can sounds intelligent next time someone happens to talk about John Webster’s lesser known works, or Jacobean tragedies (I’m aware you may have to wait a while for this to occur, but when it does, you’ll be prepared!). Vittoria Corombona and the Duke of Bracciano are in love. Only trouble is, both of them are already married; Vittoria to the weak, asinine Camillo, and Bracciano to the pious, loyal Isabella. Flamineo, meanwhile, is both Vittoria’s sibling and secretary to Bracciano, so, having an ambitious, get-to-the-top-at-all-costs kind of nature, he really wants this match to take place. Naturally the unfortunate spouses need to therefore be gotten out of the way – and by less than legal means. Fighting against the lovers and Flamineo are Francisco, the powerful Duke of Florence and Isabella’s brother, and Cardinal Monticelso, whose red robes and cross belie his cunning and wrathful nature. From there on in, chaos ensues, loads of people die, there is much talk of “whores” and devils hidden beneath fair natures, and Vittoria is a complete boss in a court scene where all the men are against her.
(Just so you’re aware, there will be SPOILERS from here on out, so if you don’t want to know the rest of the plot, then stop reading now.)
Yes, some of the writing is rather basic (a highlight has to be Bracciano’s reaction to Isabella’s violent, bloody murder: “Excellent, then she’s dead.”) but there are some brilliantly modern – or rather, eternally pertinent – themes in there; and Vittoria becomes a great feminist icon at points.
This production really plays up on this feminist idea – perhaps because it’s directed and designed by women (Maria Aberg and Naomi Dawson). Flamineo, who is male in the original, is played by Laura Elphinstone and becomes Vittoria’s sister here. It seems Aberg deliberately makes all the strong characters female; although Bracciano, Monticelso and Francisco seem powerful, in reality Vittoria, Flamineo, Isabella, and even Zanche (Vittoria’s servant) have the greatest strength of character.
Vittoria herself is played with great majesty by Kirsty Bushell. She starts the play by entering in just the most basic underwear, wearing a hairnet and then dresses herself into her strappy heels, sparkling skin-tight dress and candyfloss pink wig. Her extravagant and intrinsically feminine clothing became like a battle-armour. In the court scene, she donned a white structural dress and a blunt glossy black bob; in this society, almost like in the Capitol of The Hunger Games, appearance is everything and allows those clever enough to realise this to manipulate the shallow people around them. The only time Vittoria was seen with her own hair, sans wig, sans heels, sans skirt, was when she was in the convent. Or rather, when she was away from men, not needed to perform, and at her most vulnerable.
The other women in the convent particularly highlighted the difference between appearance and reality. When in society they wore incredibly sexual clothing and wigs and heels, but in the all-female world of the convent their bruises, matted hair and wounds were revealed.
It was this convent that provided the most powerful image of the play. As the poor beaten women in all their vulnerability were shut up in the white and transparent walls below, the men in front simply ignored them, staring up and singing piously in Latin as Monticelso, in an absurdly over-embroidered, over-fitted outfit stood above the women and announced his ascent to the role of Pope.
David Rintoul as this pompous, moralising Monticelso had quite incredible amounts of energy. Every line was dramatically declaimed to the extent that spit showered the stage as he preached against “whores” with an oddly fascinated intensity. His power especially worked when contrasted with the soft, sinuating tones of Simon Scardifield as Francisco, who went from pastel-clad, seemingly-weak, caring brother to a single-minded, cold-hearted, cunning leader. Bracciano, played by David Sturzaker, was also very well portrayed, as this man who flips between passionate love for Vittoria and ruthless determination to get her to himself at all costs.
One of the most interesting things about this play is how hard it is to choose anyone to root for. On the one hand, the romantic side of you wants to support the lovers, on the other you feel you should stand for justice and on another (you have three hands, ok?!) you feel that open evil is better than a “white devil”; someone who pretends not to be evil at all. It’s a stereotypical English trait that we support the underdog – but in this play it’s so hard to tell who the underdog actually is.
Flamineo probably links most to this; and although I felt like they missed some his potential – they cut out a lot of the scenes where he most gets the audience on his side (or rather her side, I suppose) – Elphinstone acted the final, ridiculously melodramatic scene so powerfully that from that alone I wanted to support her. Some other actors particularly worth mentioning are Keir Charles as a brilliantly ignorant fop; Joseph Arkley as your typical hard-man Ludovico and Faye Castelow as Isabella, a character who can appear weak, but here became one of the strongest of them all. I also thought the child actor who played Giovanni was surprisingly believable; especially his creepy final laugh at the end.
Overall, this is a production well worth seeing. The cast is very strong, and although sometimes the plot points get a little messy or the lines aren’t of the highest quality, the energy and dynamism makes up for it. They condense a complicated plot pretty well, so even if you don’t know the story you’ll enjoy it. There’s plenty of symbolism all over the shop for those of you who are English nerds like me and my friends, but there’s also masses of action if that’s more your style – I actually hurt my neck, I twisted round so fast at one point. The creepy, churchlike music was one of my highlights as well, and really added to the atmosphere of religion mixed with extreme hedonism. I didn’t really see the point of the videos that were projected up on screen, and the first act seemed insanely long, but other than that, and Webster’s script (he can’t get offended, he’s been dead for a few hundred years!), this is a highly entertaining and interesting production of a play that really makes you think about what evil actually is.
‘The White Devil’ at Swan Theatre (RSC): 3.5/5