FringeReview UK 2017
This revival of The White Devil in the Wannamaker comes with Michael West as dramaturg and text editor; some cuts are striking. Director Annie Ryan’s partly modern dress works with Jamie Vartan’s designs. Laura Rushton’s work encompasses dark male attire flamed through with period dresses and scarlet. Tom Lane’s striking score moves from slant early baroquerie out of Monteverdi to Forties swing.
Annie Ryan’s partly modern dress revival of The White Devil in the Wannamaker comes after a coincidence. The Globe’s Read Not Dead series featured the same play in December. That extraordinary read-through didn’t employ Michael West as dramaturg and text editor; some cuts are striking.
Jamie Vartan designs fascinating props, with a kind of lectern functioning as prayer rails and vaulting horse doing service for two mortal dispatches with the help of swing and trap doors. Candle-arbours are rectilinear: the feel through Laura Rushton’s work encompasses dark male attire flamed through with period dresses and scarlet, later white robes for Cardinal Monticelso. Tom Lane’s striking score moves from slant early baroquerie out of Monteverdi to Forties swing. At one point they’re cut off mid-saw – a snappy, genre-slithering band led by Stephen Bentley-Klein.
That underlines the liveliness of this production, which spins on the moment, Joseph Timms’ Flamineo flirting with an audience member, ad-libbing to engaging effect. It’s standard Globe practice, less evident in the Wannamaker.
Ryan’s comically-boosted production is a festal riot of death, edged with sex and self-serving Machiavels: as West points out, Flamineo’s more Machiavelli as impoverished secretary to Jamie Ballard’s Duke Bracciano, than any Prince of darkness, the future Pope himself, Monticelso. West’s editing ensures this sleek reading grips everyone with the minimum of 1612 London references for instance; though this is Southwark and they might have been updated – West’s other additions do no harm at all. It’s needless deletions that niggle.
The White Devil marks Webster’s solo debut, fully-formed with such lines as ‘there are millions now in graves/Who at last day like mandrakes shall rise shrieking.’ It’s spoken by Vittoria, a historical personage whose adulterous desire for Bracciano – they’re both married – is brokered by Bracciano’s secretary: her incestuously-hinged brother Flamineo, a man with no rooted values being over-qualified by university learning to settle for anything menial. He later earns her outrage after he casually murders their virtuous brother Marcello. Flamineo’s late realization encapsulates the chimera of court patronage: ‘Glories, like glow-worms, afar off shine bright/But looked to near, have neither heat nor light.’
So it’s a pity both these quotes are excised, though most others survive. There’s pointed use of the ‘suttle fouldings of a winter’s snake’ and by swirling exits other such lines arise new-minted. Flamineo’s end-stopped ‘Oft gay and honored robes those torture try:/’We think caged birds sing, when indeed they cry’’ turns on a heel. You can’t forget it.
Timms and Kate Stanley-Brennan as Vittoria shine delivering Webster’s verse, pointing up with defiant splendor or self-delighting braggadocio tinged with Trainspotting. Flamineo’s a role to overcharge, both hot in pursuit of intrigue and perhaps incest, with Vittoria’s maid Zanche a mutually fricative flicker. Timms’ Flamineo bestrides his fate with a scornful lustre.
Vittoria isn’t nice in her appetites, but complicit in murder to satisfy them (the lovers want to marry). Webster’s genius has us rooting for her almost as much as his Duchess of Malfi. Kate Stanley-Brennan renders brazenness a virtue even in the teeth of guilt, putting into her lover’s head – as Flamineo notices – a double murder to enfranchise them for marriage. Since everyone’s murderous (the future Pope logs all to advantage) Vittoria’s self-vindication is refreshing, her courage noble, her sexuality unapologetic in a world of misogynistic lust. Stanley-Brennan’s overtly sassy, sexy portrayal is in perpetual motion: quick plotting never allows rest.
Her swervy responses counterpoint Isabella or mother Cornelia’s relative stillness though Zanche shadows her in mercurial appetite and snap. Thus Vittoria’s husband pauvre type Camillo is dispatched break-necked on a vaulting horse, the consummately hapless Fergal McElherron relishing this bespectacled doddering contrast to his murderous Lodovico who spits the play’s opening ‘Banished?’ incredulously after his latest slaughters.
Vittoria’s arraignment for murder, since Monticelso knows it’s circumstantial, turns on misogyny. Ryan wishes to point up Trump circling Clinton. Forget it. The period costumes but above all eloquence bears no comparison even if Monticelso’s intellect is notably blunted, almost as much as the lawyer has been floored as Vittoria dismisses Latin as the audience won’t understand it (cue laughter), then legalese Webster himself learned: ‘this is Welsh to Latin’. This one of Sarah Vevers’ delicious vignettes, the other as necromancer Hortensio.
Monticelso invokes Sodom and Gomorrah and ‘I Will but touch her and straight you shall see/She’ll fall to soot and ashes’. Vittoria ripostes ’your envenomed/Pothecary should do’t’ as if she knows of his black book. Monticelso’s unprepared vileness is trounced. Stanley-Brennan delivers this like a queen in exile, aware of Monticelso’s squirming lust: ‘That the last day of judgment may so find you,/And leave you the same devil you were before,/Instruct me some good horse-leech to speak treason.’ She transfers the White Devil epithet to him as a curse, though several qualify.
Her Ducal lover’s of a lower order. Ballard injects venality, quicksilver jealousy: Vittoria’s a consumed object not a consuming love. There’s brutish credulity as Ballard exudes his belief Vittoria’s unfaithful. In fact it’s the first winding of his ex brother-in-law Francesco’s plot to unite and isolate them.
It’s this latter plot that drives denouement. Paul Bazely’s straight-bat Francesco shadows himself in vengeance, implacably vicious, once improbably disguised as a Moorish general. The part cried out for BME representation here. With Mercy Ojelade as his sister Isabella the logic would have been perfect, confusion with the general hammering a point about stereotyping. Aristo disguised hoodies don’t cut it.
Bracciano’s saintly wife Isabella is however a sterner proposition to Ballard’s hoary brattishnesss. Ojelade’s spirited under sufferance, passionately loving and in Webster’s hands wrenching pathos. In the most touching scene in the play she eases her erring husband’s abandonment by feigning a jealous rejection of him, using her natural fury at Vittoria to aid the lovers, banishing her husband in front of her own brother, with one lingering kiss – Ojelade leaves us in no doubt she’s kissing her soul away with this severance. It’s a proleptic act and you wonder if she even realizes that now wholly rejected by her husband she kisses his portrait at night knowing what he’s done: she falls back dying poisoned by it. Ojelade’s performance brings ardour and tragic muteness to an ivory carving of a role.
Both these murders are shown proleptically too by necromancer Hortensio, like a flash-forward of reality, a device often portrayed by this period symbolically in dumb show. Webster’s lifting of veils between prolepsis and act is riveting, shiveringly strange, a way of masking and intensifying horrors. It’s something he twisted in his next tragedy The Duchess of Malfi.
There’s cuts: both Isabella and Bracciano return analeptically as ghosts of their recent selves to prophesy the next round. Thus Isabella appears in dumb reproach to Bracciano, the latter to Flamineo. The only remnant here is Jamael Westman’s priggish Marcello reproving Flamineo with silence.
It’s the sole authority. Jacobean Britain accepts a Pope with a black book of all biddable murderers, prostitutes, cut-throats and cut-purses who can be brought on or off. Garry Cooper relishes the burgundy-rich tones of a prime prelate, and exults in his sinister command, quick to distance himself, so when Lodovico’s tricked into believing he’s hired by Monticelso to kill, it’s a reasonable mistake.
Gleeful murders, faux-firings of pistols (a Flamineo ruse) leading to the real thing, are all highly wrought as prophesies like a background theatre music before such things were conceived. Sensibly this thicket of male roles was portioned to leaven the gender-preponderance of Jacobean Machiavels. Shanaya Rafaat’s Zanche, who shares her mistress Vittoria’s fire and fate, spits at them as joyfully as Vittoria, where Mollie Lambert’s Giovanni proves as gleefully vicious as Lodovico.
Most affecting is the fateful brothers and sister’s mother Cornelia, Anna Healy, whose unbelieving grief at Marcello’s death unhinges her to prophetic sanity, in a lyric brush of distraction. Her beautifully-sung dirge composed by Lane, is a highpoint. ‘Call for the robin red breast and the wren’ is more than wrought melodrama; it checks the headlong pace of Flamineo and Lodovico in their doomed careers.
The great lines at the end comprise the finest number of exits in drama, not before Flamineo realizes ‘’Thou’rt a noble sister/I love thee now’ and the extraordinary breaks in Flamineo’s verse to sudden prose and back: ‘I recover like a spent taper, for a flash/And instantly go out.’ The flame-voiced Timms consumes as much in his jerky finality.
Webster’s inspired equivalence of siblings facilitates the gender-slashing part of Vittoria, and Stanley-Brennan pitches this nose-to-nose with Timms in a scene of breathless intimacy. It demands venom and defiance as well as passion in verse. Vittoria’s gifted with ‘My soul like to a ship in a black storm/Is driven I know not wither.’ Her valedictory ‘O happy they that never saw the court, Nor ever knew great man but by report’ would elsewhere be spoken by a man. Webster, as it were, trumps that.
It’s crowned in Lodovico boasting to the restorers of order ‘here’s my rest:/I limmed this night-piece, and it was my best’ – devilishly more eloquent than Iago. Webster suggests a similar fate for Lodovico; decisions are taken here.
Even the last words are somehow Vittoria’s as a trope. Evil-doers ‘lean on crutches, made of slender reeds’ and we’re back with her ‘Oh, sir, I would not go before a politic enemy with my back … Weeping to heaven on crutches.’ Ryan’s pacey revival is timely, thrusting us to Webster’s sadly timeless themes. But misogyny’s purged of its merely temporal strut with the force of such verse inhabited, which lays its living sinew bare.