RSC Key member, Grace Murray, reviews Webster's Shocking Revenge Tragedy, The White Devil.
The White Devil
Directed by Maria Aberg
Maria Aberg’s lurid and often uncomfortable production of Webster’s revenge tragedy could not have come at a better time. The corrupt patriarchy which dominates the Italian court of The White Devil may at first seem distant from our modern society, but the ongoing Everyday Sexism and Yes All Women campaigns, among others, have proven that we still have a long way to go before feminism becomes obsolete. Webster’s tale of the bloody consequences of the affair between Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell) and Duke Bracciano (David Sturzaker) exposes the hypocrisy and rigid genderism which still influence our perspective on sexuality today.
The production opens with Vittoria stripped to her underwear on a bare stage, dressing in front of a suddenly uneasy audience. It’s impossible to escape the casual objectification in this warped version of Rome, both for Bushell’s magnetic Vittoria, defiant but frustrated by her lack of agency, and for the audience itself, bombarded by the sexual imagery on the vast overhead screen which borrows from the modern music video. Aberg also turns Vittoria’s scheming brother Flamineo into her sister, played by Laura Elphinstone as a calculating politician who adopts the misogyny of her male superiors. Flamineo’s sexist tirades seem all the more unthinkable when delivered by a woman.
Indeed, nothing is sacred in Aberg’s vision. The house of convertites, a place of seclusion for sinful women, instead serves as the menacing backdrop of many a court scene as its drugged inmates shuffle around a transparent cell. Adultery is committed in the midst of throbbing techno music, and at one point a dead body is dragged across the stage. Webster’s play exposed the carnal desires at the heart of the 17th century nobility, but Aberg’s production forces its audience to accept that sex and violence still leave us enraptured as well as enraged. It’s a deeply unsettling feeling: there’s nowhere to hide.
When Erica Whyman announced the RSC’s plans to stage The White Devil, she noted that although the problems of gender inequality aren’t easy to solve on the stage or in the world, “we are intent on asking some questions about both”. The White Devil asks us many, but most of all I was left wondering, “What has changed?” And the answer is, “Not enough.”
BP £5 tickets are still available for The White Devil.