In Annie Ryan’s hands, John Webster’s The White Devil takes on an obsidian vagueness, the shape and feel of the intricate plot occasionally clear enough but the detail wrapped in a steampunk Games Of Thrones lite sensibility with curious, but politically correct, casting which undermines the play’s difficult themes. The darkness here comes not from motive, murder or misogyny, but from truly dreadful lighting.
Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright But looked to near, have neither heat nor light.
In the programme for the revival of The White Devil, now playing in the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, outgoing Globe artistic director Emma Rice waxes lyrical:
The White Devil is a fierce and fabulous play that has more twists and turns than a Cornish lane. Political, sexual and deeply troubled, be prepared for plots and sub-plots, crossings and double-crossings and monstrous murders aplenty. I knew that this extraordinary glimpse into the Jacobean psyche needed a true heart and strong eye at the helm and I am beyond thrilled to welcome Annie Ryan to Shakespeare’s Globe…Ever inventive and always a risk-taker, Annie’s background in physical theatre seemed like the perfect match for this sexy beast of a play.
For her part, director Ryan states:
Audiences are very sophisticated in their knowledge of narrative structure nowadays: they expect a satisfying pay-off…we have made some pretty big cuts in this text, and we’ve recast some of the lines…the intention is reveal and clarify the action of the play. I am interested in opening up the question of what it is in us that seeks vengeance – to investigate that fury in ourselves and how it lends itself to violence and corruption. That’s the crucial thing.
One suspects that John Webster would be likely to be seeking vengeance about this production. It bears little resemblance to his original, especially in terms of its themes and pulse.
Ryan sets the play in that sort of historical time so familiar now from so many television serials and films, sort of gothic, sort of steampunk, entirely faux historical. Costumes encourage a sense of familiarity with the characters. You might see similar ones in Games of Thrones or Doctor Who.
Yet, Webster’s characters are really, specifically, of their time. They actually need to work in that time, when hierarchy of the white male kind was oppressive, and misogyny was ingrained with despicable duplicity; when sex and desire had a particular relationship, quite different from today; when violence was casual and unremarked. It’s not a work reflective of our time, although one could argue that if Trump’s vision takes hold in America, it soon will be.
One of the key jobs for a director staging The White Devil is to make both the devilishly complicated plot and the sense of the period crystal clear. Ryan, and her dramaturg/text editor, Michael West, do not succeed in this. Rarely, if ever, is it possible to understand precisely what is motivating move and counter-move.
There are several key reasons for this.
Firstly, little respect is given to the language. All sorts of accents are employed, and these make it difficult for the audience to tune into the lyrical language Webster employs. Equally, the points where Webster’s language snarls or spits do not get the prominence or emphasis they need. The result is that the overall shape of the machinations, twists and turns is moderately clear, but the detail, the aspects that specifically define character, are absent.
Secondly, an admirable drive for gender representation undermines the points Webster seeks to make about the sexes. This is clearest in two key scenes, but also throughout. The famous Courtroom scene where Vittoria faces her accusers loses much when her prosecutor is female. The final scene, which makes the end of Hamlet seem like a happy frolic, depends for its power on images of women slaughtered by men being swept aside by the regime of another man. Where, as here, that new regime is represented by a woman, the waters are unnecessarily muddied. A gender reversal production of The White Devil might reap real dividends, but this half-way version dilutes rather than accentuates.
Thirdly, there seems a conscious directorial decision not to shed light on the action. The stage is very darkly lit. Not all the candelabras available are utilised, and so there is an obsidian shadow over everything. Sometimes this works well, in an Aliens 2 kind of way, but at other times, when nuance is conveyed by an eye flash or a sultry smile, it is just not possible to see that which is critical. The best example comes in the great double feint in the second half: when pistols are dramatically and surprisingly revealed, they simply can’t be seen. The joy and value of the shock is entirely lost. The Courtroom scene might be shadowy and secret, but that really only underlines why it needs to be seen in better light to be as ghastly as it should be.
Modern audiences are quite capable of paying attention, following detailed plots, understanding character motivation and back-history. The worldwide success of Games of Thrones establishes that clearly enough. Here, trusting the author might have been a wiser choice. Some of the cuts here are sensible, but others deprive the audience of a clearer understanding of motive and anticipation.
What this version does do, well, is walk that line between horror and humour with considerable skill. At some points the laugh out loud laughter is cathartic, sometimes unbelieving. Ryan mines every situation for comic possibilities. This would be outstanding, if the horror got equal attention, but it doesn’t. Tom Lane’s intrusive score, a sort of Keystone Cops does Dracula by way of Philip Glass effort, sometimes helps with the uneasy feeling ripe horror engenders, sometimes infuriates by cutting through it.
The pace is languid rather than thrilling, except towards the latter part of the play, where it turns somewhat breakneck. An even, brisk, pace, accelerating slightly as the plot coils ever tighter better would serve performers and audience alike.
There is some quite terrible acting which sadly robs the play of some of its most tender and fragile moments. Like so many classic plays, The White Devil requires skill and commitment from every player; minor characters have tremendous importance. Here, many performances are not so much wooden as concrete.
There are exceptions. Garry Cooper is suave and sly as the duplicitous, morally corrupt Cardinal, later Pope, Monticelso. He has a good, feline, grasp of the language and mostly underplays nicely.
Jamie Ballard does some good work as Bracciano, but there is too much shouting and not enough sense of the blinding carnal lust which sets his course for doom. There is, however, little chemistry between Ballard and Kate Stanley-Brennan’s Vittoria which is problematic given that their relationship lights the fuse for the play’s action.
Otherwise, Stanley-Brennan shines, although she keeps her voice in quite a harsh register and this limits her performance unnecessarily. Sharp truths in soft phrases more unerringly strike. She is at her best in exchanges with Cooper and Joseph Timms’ Flamineo.
Timms gives a vibrant, fourth-wall breaking, dallying with damsels in the audience, cheeky but conniving, performance. It is hampered in no small way by the decision to make Flamineo sound like an older version of the Artful Dodger, or perhaps a younger version of Alfie Moon. Either way, the accent cuts against the darkness of Flamineo and Timms is not given the chance to explore the more complex aspects of the character (incestuous urges, bisexuality).
However, Timms proves to be the lifeline for the audience – his easy, familiar style provides a clear focus and, through him, some of the plot difficulties resolve. There is a duality in this. On the one hand, familiarity breeds connection; on the other, it obscures plot conundrums and complexity.
There is still much to enjoy here, despite the very bad lighting and very bad acting: But looked to near, this The White Devil has neither heat nor light.
Webster’s play still packs a punch, even if it is bantam-weight rather than heavy-weight. In an age when aggressive, sexist, racist white supremacists are grasping for or taking power, the heavy-weight version is the one the world most needs to be reminded about.