DIRECTOR Maria Aberg has taken on John Webster’s revenge tragedy The White Devil with a vengeance. (Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon) Just like The Two Gentlemen of Verona next door in the main theatre, the setting is contemporary Italy, but Aberg creates a selfish, decandent and cruel society. Webster’s play was shocking in its day with eight murders resulting from Vittoria and Bracciano’s adultery, but Aberg enables us to empathise with all of the characters, even if their behaviour is outrageous, which makes it all the more disturbing.
Kirsty Bushell’s portrayal of Vittoria is powerful.
From the outset we are invited into her world, as we watch her dress for what looks like yet another party after many years of partying.
She makes direct eye contact with the audience as she transforms herself. Webster invites the audience to consider the place of women in society through Vittoria’s fate, but in Aberg’s production Vittoria is even more complex and in part responsible for her undoing.
The other female characters show us women suffering at the hands of men because of the expectations of society.
But here they are seen attempting to maintain their integrity and beliefs.
Aberg changes the gender of Vittoria’s brother Flamino, to a sister, played brilliantly by Laura Elphinstone. Again the interpretation is complex and contradictory, resulting in two powerful female roles.
There are times when the production concept does not make clear sense. For example, why is Bracciano so brutal to his faithful wife Isabella and why is the affair so open, given the potential consequences?
The audience are often left to work out their own interpretations, which can be annoying. Despite this lack of ‘completion’, this director-driven production is intriguing and powerful throughout and sheds contemporary light on a 400 year old text.
The White Devil runs until November 29.
8 out of 10 RUSSELL BLACKALLER