Theatre Review: “The White Devil” (RSC, 2014)

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Vittoria (Kristy Bushell) and Brachiano (David Sturzaker) with Flamineo (Laura Elphinstone) watching in the background.

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Read my book review of The White Devil by John Webster here.

A few hours before we attended the RSC 2014 production of John Webster’s The White Devil (Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon), my fellow students and I attended a lecture by Martin Wiggins at the Shakespeare Centre. He spoke passionately about how these characters are all prisoners of circumstance, driven to crime without the financial means to sustain their honour, and discussed the play’s detached analysis of morality whilest quoting Hamlet (“nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”). All interesting points, but Wiggins barely touched upon what struck me the most about the play when I first read it: its depiction of brutal misogyny. My professor seemed to agree and raised his hand to ask Wiggins about it: “But what about gender?” Wiggins pulled a “not this again” face, the face of a man who has gotten this question a lot lately and is starting to get a little annoyed. “That is not what Webster’s play is about, though.” Seeing the quick look of skepticism my professor and I exchanged, he added: “you will see that the current production makes much of gender, but it is a jazz riff on the text, not a straightforward representation.”

A number of critics seem to agree with Wiggins: this is director Maria Aberg’s The White Devil, not John Webster’s. But is this really a problem?

Maria Aberg is no stranger to unconventional, “un-English” stagings of early modern plays (Wiggins’ words). She set her 2013 production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at a Glastonbury-like music festival, with songs by Laura Marling and an ambiguously bisexual hipster version of Orlando, and changed the gender of Philip the Bastard in her 2012 production of King John. “Quirky” is the watchword and Aberg has made it very clear that, as a director, she is looking to change the face of theatre: she wants better and more interesting roles for women. If the texts don’t give them to her, she will take out her red pen and create those opportunities herself. The White Devil is part of the RSC’s “Roaring Girl” season, a series of rarely performed Jacobean plays with strong female characters and directed by women. (The Witch of Edmonton is a notable exception, which was directed by the RSC’s artistic director Gregory Doran. The suggestion that, as a gay man, Doran could pass as an honorary “Roaring Girl” is a discussion for another time.)

Aberg has set her White Devil in contemporary times, a society ruled by the paparazzi, a corrupt court, and men of God who are more concerned with their personal ambition than with actual virtue. This world is characterised by grotesque hedonism, drug-fueled parties, neon bondage ropes, leather dominatrix bras, and thick layers of religious kitsch reminiscent of Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet. A gigantic image of the eyes of the virgin Mary overlooks the house for penitent whores, like a kind of twisted T.J. Eckleburg. In gigantic letters on the wall, it reads “ORA PRO NOBIS.” Everything has been fetishised, commercialised, and drenched in rank sweat. One particularly striking image is in the background of one of the party scenes, when a woman in a tight nun’s dress made of neon orange rubber snorts coke off her hand and wobbles off-stage in her high heels. To enhance this atmosphere, Aberg uses colourful video projections and has enlisted Django Django’s David Maclean and Tommy Grace to write a soundtrack that moves from steaming club songs to religious choirs, pulsing and girating in the background. These characters are dancing at the edge of a cliff, desperate for pleasure but always in danger of getting dragged down into the abyss. Not your mother’s Webster indeed.

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In this setting, Aberg turns the audience into a voyeur. Not only do we see certain shocking scenes play out behind glass walls, but the play opens with actress Kristy Bushell walking onto the stage in her underwear. She is vulnerable, exposed, and gazes straight into the audience, making eye contact, smiling. Then she turns around to look at the wall behind her, where a video of her as Vittoria plays. She starts to put on her dress, her shoes, her wig. This is not just Bushell putting on her costume, it is Vittoria constructing her public persona of the flirty party girl. Her feminine sexuality is a performance, calculated and artificial, inviting us to objectify her.

We see Bushell in this state two more times, looking into the audience as she gets dressed, but she seems increasingly resigned, knowing the role she will have to play as the story unfolds. The dresses (and wigs) become less polished, more unhinged. At one point we even see her stuff a bag of stage blood into her underwear as she watches images of the murdered Vittoria on the screen. In the video, Vittoria lies on her back, her shirt slipping off her shoulder to show her bra, looking straight into the camera: “sexy dead.” For many people in the audience, this kind of glorified imagery of violence against women is uncomfortably familiar (Game of Thrones, for one, is particularly problematic). Bushell looks at the screen, then back at the audience, confronting us. 

Am I making you uncomfortable? This is what you want, right?

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I had the great pleasure of talking to Kristy Bushell at the Shakespeare Centre after the performance, and she had some fascinating views on the character. She explained that she thinks of Vittoria as a mannequin, a doll, someone who is perceived: Vittoria is described in terms of her beauty all the time (“lots of adjectives”), but when it comes to what is on the inside, she is difficult to grasp. The other characters project their own thoughts and feelings onto her and as a result, she becomes whoever you want her to be. Vittoria is at the centre of a male-dominated world and adopts her own objectification as a means of survival. Bushell also explained that she plays Vittoria as a self-destructive addict who uses Bachiano to abuse her so she doesn’t have to do it herself. This makes her into an active participant instead of just a victim: Bushnell’s Vittoria is astute, manipulative, compulsive, hyper vigilant and desperately needy at the same time, always looking for the next quick fix.

This production has been criticised the most for one huge change: Aberg decided to change the gender of Vittoria’s ambitious brother Flamineo. This Flamineo, played by Laura Elphinstone. is androgynous with slicked back hair and a harsh Northern accent. The result is arresting: the brutal murders are even more shocking when committed by her, and we cannot help but do a double-take when we hear deeply misogynistic words come out of her mouth. In her introduction to the RSC Prompt Book edition of the play, Aberg writes:

In contemporary debate around equality, I have noticed an increase in the number of women who believe that it’s a better option to not only accept but to rejoice in the rhetoric that claims women are inferior to men. Women who, like the child who befriends the bully in order to avoid being bullied, believe that by aligning themselves with the oppressor, they themselves can escape becoming victims of misogyny. [...]
Casting the part of Flamineo as a woman allowed us as a company to explore this corrosive response to misogyny, be it in Webster’s metaphorical Italy or in the everyday life of our contemporary audiences. [...] Flamineo’s attempt to own the misogynist attitudes around her therefore becomes a sort of ideological suicide vest – believing it will lead to her salvation, it actually takes her straight to her own destruction.

Elphinstone’s Flamineo is hard as nails, ruthless, and frustrated. Even when she is dancing, she punches the air like it has offended her somehow. Her body language is fascinating to watch, enhanced by her tight clothing. During the show, I scribbled the word “vicious” on my notebook, only to have Flamineo herself speak the words “Know many women who are famed / For masculine virtue are called vicious.” I felt embarrassed, like I’d been caught. Yes. Yes, you’re right. You got me.

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That is not to say that all of these changes work in the production’s favour. The play loses steam in the second half and some of the changes really don’t work, but what Aberg’s White Devil lacks above all else is subtlety. She has a point to make and she hammers it home in every single way she can think of, resulting in complete sensory overload. Her decisions are so bold that they have a tendency to drown out the actual text, which is particularly a problem for first-time viewers who will have enough trouble keeping up with the overly complicated plot as it is. This production is loud, unrelenting, and unapologetic, which is exactly what has divided the critics. This is not a play, but a perspective, for better or worse.

Personally, I applaud the gut and gusto with which Aberg has tackled this challenge, and even though I felt like I’d been ideologically steamrolled by the end of it, I say that she deserves credit for getting a discussion going. As long as there are people grumbling that she should keep her feminist agenda out of their early modern canon, I hope Aberg’s response will be to do it some more. 

Am I making you uncomfortable?

Watch the RSC trailer here.

Read my book review of The White Devil by John Webster here.

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