The White Devil

Last night, Andrea and I scooted off to Stratford to go and see Webster’s The White Devil, a classic revenge tragedy, and a play we had never seen staged before.

We got an email several weeks ago, warning us that the play was rather shocking and we might want to prepare ourselves beforehand.

We were duly warned. We were not quite sure what to do in terms of preparing ourselves beforehand. I thought a bit about Nightmare on Elm Street and ladies with their nipples hanging out and decided I could probably handle all of the above.

The last time we got an email like this was when we went to see Marat Sade, which was actually quite shocking, but nothing you wouldn’t expect from a sadomasochistic odd ball writing about perversions in a mental asylum. You’d hardly have booked tickets and expected to see everyone swanning around in Laura Ashley nightwear taking tea on the lawn.

To be honest, we were a little sceptical. We wondered whether ticket sales for The White Devil were a little on the sluggish side. Nothing invigorates a box office more than the warning of scandalous behaviour, with the possible exception of notifying everyone that Benedict Cumberbatch is actually going to take the lead role at short notice.

We discussed things with great earnestness on the drive home. We were profoundly unshocked, it has to be said. I think if you are the sort of person who has not been in a night club in the last twenty years, nor ever seen those sun, sea and sex programmes about drunken teenagers from up North giving it large in Ibiza you may have raised an eyebrow, but otherwise it was distinctly meh.

The director did a version of King John a few years ago at the RSC I rated, and I was hoping for great things, but what I actually got was the sense that she is perhaps a bit of a one trick pony. King John was given an update to give it a kind of Eighties disco theme. The White Devil simply moved things forward to the rave years. Otherwise it had a lot of the same gimmicks. There was a great deal of lycra club wear, some pounding beats, and some synchronised dance moves that were supposed to merge the courtly dances of the Elizabethans with the grimy moves of the contemporary urban scene (or something), but which just ended up looking a bit silly to me.

There were hints of drug taking in the wild eyed, slightly out of control behaviour of the lady Vittoria, which updated the themes of debauchery getting a bit out of hand, although I would remark that debauchery has a duty to get out of hand, and if it didn’t, I would want my money back.

There were sexual perversions aplenty, but you actually find this a fair bit in Elizabethan plays, because the Elizabethans probably had a thing or two we could learn about what to do on a wet Saturday night in Southwark, and dressing things up in latex dayglo nun’s outfits and lycra fetishwear over eggs the pudding rather.

I did feel sorry for the cast in this play to be honest. The costume designers had really gone to town on a series of outfits that left nothing to the imagination, and quite a few of the ladies were pulling down very short hemlines when it came to taking a bow, and I suspect there might have been a fair amount of tit tape involved to keep everything reasonably in order up top in some cases. If you are the least bit body conscious I wouldn’t suggest understudying for a part in this particular show.

The story was fairly typical of the revenge tragedy, i.e. the revenge is a bit pointless and all the least blameworthy people get murdered first, which would annoy you if you didn’t know that everyone else was going to get murdered shortly afterwards. There were, typically, fairly huge plot holes and jumping around with time lines to fit all the murders into such a short time, and it was utterly silly. The best you can hope for with a play like this is either a fantastic, fresh staging which makes you marvel at the things you can do in theatres these days and the imagination of the people in charge, or such outstanding acting that even though it is all bollocks you have some sympathy for the characters, no matter how ridiculous.

In this situation there was none of that. The actors did a good job to a man, but there wasn’t anything that lifted the whole event for me, and the staging was predictable, and sadly, to me, a little bit lazy.

4 responses to “The White Devil

  1. Ooh, this reminds me, I’ve still got the Duchess of Malfi taped to watch. And tomorrow I’m off to see Rupert Everett in Amadeus at Chichester, if my stupid bosom allows. I will let you know what it was like.

  2. Yes please. I hope your bosom clears for Rupey. x

  3. Having endured ‘Women Beware Women’ at the National (stylish but irritating) and then a very shrieky and rather randomly updated version of ‘The Changeling’ at The Young Vic, I have finally forsworn Jacobean Tragedy and feel it has no place in the modern theatre. This is a huge relief to me because it means I never have to sit through it ever again … ooh, the relief ;-).
    That said, I think Danny Boyle managed to create a modern take on it in Trance (t’is a pity she’s a psychotherapist!) which was kind of interesting but still all a bit depressing.

  4. Sarah. I also saw Women Beware Women. Didn’t like it much except that it had Harriet Walter in, which is always a treat. I don’t think revenge tragedies are my thing either to be honest.

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