FringeReview UK 2016
Read Not Dead rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards.
As Read Not Dead suggests, Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline play texts sometimes not revived for 400 years are dedicated to dragging plays out of a quattrocento sleep; sometimes it’s like cutting ancient paper to reveal a text never seen.
So it seems doubly curious to mount a Read Not Dead of one of Webster’s two popular, often-revived tragedies; particularly when the Wanamaker’s reviving this one in January 2017 as indeed advertised in the programme, albeit with a wholly different cast.
In fairness this is what director James Chalmers admitted – they had no idea! The Education section of the Globe runs on parallel not intersecting lines, but what we have in this decision is a rare chance to see something we think we know acted by a superb cast volunteering for a day’s workout then if we’re dedicated (and those of us who see these really love them) we’ll see the full production too. Read Not Dead rules are simple: actors volunteer, are given scripts on a Sunday morning, and scripts in hand, enact at four p.m. or afterwards.
Published in 1612 The White Devil is Webster’s first solo effort, coming fully-formed with such tremendous lines as ‘there are millions now in graves/Who at last day like mandrakes shall rise shrieking.’ This is spoken by Vittoria, a historical personage whose adulterous desire for Brachiano – they’re both married – is brokered by her incestuously-hinged brother Flamineo, who then turns on her outrage after he casually murders their virtuous brother Marcello.
Vittoria isn’t overly nice in her appetites, but crucially she’s complicit in murder to satisfy them (no hole in wall affair; the lovers want to marry). Webster’s genius has us rooting for her almost as much as for instance his Duchess of Malfi. Vittoria’s own husband the pauvre type Camillo is dispatched break-necked on a vaulting horse, the consummately hapless Alex Harcourt-Smith returning for smaller roles.
Her Ducal lover’s of a lower order of being. Brachiano’s saintly wife Isabella (Pearl Chanda) is however a sterner proposition, spirited, passionately loving and in Webster’s hands wrenching pathos as wholly rejected by her husband she kisses his portrait at night; he’s known this, and she falls dead poisoned by it. Chanda’s performance brings ardour and tragic muteness to a ivory carving of a role.
Both these murders are shown proleptically, like a flash-forward as about to take place, a device often portrayed by this period symbolically, but here in dumb show, which of course become real. Webster’s lifting of veils between prolepsis and act is riveting, shiveringly strange, and a way of masking and intensifying horrors. In his next tragedy The Duchess of Malfi he tortures the eponymous Duchess by the sometime villain Bosola showing waxworks of her dead children, but they’re murdered, if not all of them, shortly after.
However both Chanda’s Isabella and indeed Matthew Needham’s unctuous venal but cowardly Brachiano enact the opposite, pulling out the play’s present and focusing on what’s about to happen and those it’s happening to returning analeptically as ghosts of their recent selves to prophesy the next round. Thus Isabella appears in dumb reproach to Brachiano, and the latter when he’s finally dispatched appears to Flamineo, not his murderer in fact but to warn him anyway, scattering very real earth and showing him a skull.
You’d expect Church authority in the personage of Monticelso, the Pope himself by the end, to stamp all this. Of course Jacobean Britain accepts a Pope with a black book of all biddable murderers, prostitutes and cut-throats cut-purses who can be brought on or off. Jason Morel relishes the burgundy-rich tones of a prime prelate, and exults in his sinister command.
Chief among these is the great third act (3:2) to arraign Vittoria for the murder of Camillo – and when Bracchiano simply excuses himself it looks terminal. Webster’s even more pitched showing Vittoria’s defiance, for instance when 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 the black book. Phillipa Peak’s firm projection of scorn and passion, anger and defiance perhaps above all in this role, is dominant.
As is John Hopkins’ Flamineo who like Peak has the measure of the verse, and bestrides his fate with a scornful lustre. His only occasional fault is a lack of shade which he does bring to bear in his final speech, but Flamineo is a role to overcharge, both hot in pursuit of intrigue and perhaps incest (he has no love interest of his own either): a man with no rooted values being over-qualified by university learning to settle for anything courtly.
Others stride too, the murderous Lodovico who spits out the first word ‘banished’ incredulously in Oliver Bennett’s turbo-charged motiveless malignity, attaches himself to whoever will see him do most harm. Jamie Askill’s virtuous Marcello is in fact a reading of moderation and Nadia Shash’s Zanche, who shares her mistress Vittoria’s fire and fate, spits joyfully.
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. There’s good work too from Nathan Medina in several roles, notably as Conjurer and military commander. Strong cameos too from Esme Bayley, Eva Bell, Charlotte Newton-John (who loves these, one of the regulars), Mark Oosterveen and Hannah Parker. Sensibly this thicket of male roles was portioned to leaven the gender-preponderance of Jacobean Machiavels.
Most affecting is the fateful brothers and sister’s mother Cornelia, Virginia Denham, whose unbelieving grief at Marcello’s death unhinges her to prophetic sanity, in a silver brush of distraction. Her dirge ‘Call for the robin red breast and the wren’ is more than wrought melodrama; it stops 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 Bennett has great potential as a verse speaker, based on the rationale and clarity he brings here: time in this part would have lent more shading.
Vittoria’s gifted with ‘My soul like to a ship in a black storm/Is driven I know not wither.’ Or ‘Happy they that never saw the court/Nor ever knew great man but by report’ which is often pluralised losing its specificity. The towering gender-slashing part of Vittoria demands venom and defiance as well as passion in verse. Peak delivers these with the kind of nuance in extremis that makes one wonder what she could do with the part.
It’s crowned in Lodovico telling the English Ambassador and restorers of order proudly ‘here’s my rest:/I limmed this night-piece, and it was my best’ is devilishly unrepentant, more eloquent than Iago. These spontaneous readings spinning on six hours bring life to dramas in a way full productions can miss. They’re addictive.