August 17, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

The White Devil (Royal Shakespeare Company) @ The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon

Webster epitomises what critics such as Susan Bennett, Pascale Aebischer and Kathryn Prince have termed ‘the Jacobean’, in the sense that refers not to the literal historical period but the subset of early modern drama which usually commands an aesthetic prioritising sex, violence, spectacle and excess. Maria Aberg, who in her previous shows at the RSC has shown herself unafraid to innovate, unsurprisingly embraced this in her new production of The White Devil, beginning with pounding dance music and accelerating through a creative range of gory murders and suggestive dances. Yet this was also a production which resounded with a barely-heard scream of anger that called to mind for me Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again from the Midsummer Mischief series.

The ‘roaring girl’ of this production was Flaminio (Laura Elphinstone), here a sister to Vittoria. Flaminio moved through the garish world created by Naomi Dawson with complete confidence, carrying on an openly sexual relationship with Zanche (Joan Iyola) and killing her own brother (Peter Bray) with a series of quick stabs to the chest and back of the neck in full view of witnesses. Her clothes connected her to Moll in The Roaring Girl, wearing women’s clothes (vest top, tight trousers, black jacket) that allowed her to move freely and distinguished her clearly from the play’s other women, usually teetering on stilettos and wearing tight dresses (even PVC, referencing the ugliest elements of late twentieth-century club culture). While some commentators have struggled to see the value in changing Flaminio’s gender, one clear effect was to change the emphasis of several of Flaminio’s closing lines, drawing attention to the number of times she references ‘men’ in the text. In her preparations for death, the bile in her voice on the last word of ‘My life hath done service to other men’ suggested that she perceived her actions and dress as part of her attempt to make her way in a man’s world, and the means by which she had forged a mode of independence for herself.

The production was bookended by a grouping of three women: Flaminio, Zanche and Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell). At the play’s opening it was made clear that the three women were complicit in enabling Vittoria’s relationship with David Sturzaker’s Bracciano at the expense of Camillo (Keir Charles, playing his third feckless man of the week). Flaminio and Zanche lounged together, watching with pleasure as Vittoria and Bracciano kissed passionately (though, whether this was due to the performances or the matinee atmosphere, nothing in this production ever seemed ‘sexy’ despite seeming desperately to be aiming for this). By the end of the play, it was the same three women left together on stage, Vittoria and Zanche now estranged from Flaminio but tricked by him into participating in a three-way Mexican stand-off with pistols. As Flaminio railed against men, the sense (here, if not elsewhere) was that the production saw itself painting a portrait of close female friendships torn apart by a patriarchy insistent on controlling, breaking, killing its women. As Joseph Arkley’s Lodovico and two other murderers ran in wearing habits, grabbed and then stabbed the women (Vittoria herself receiving multiple groin wounds), the point was made explicit and blunt.

In a recurring image, Vittoria emerged in white underwear and wearing a skull cap. Across the curtained screen upstage flashed video of Vittoria in full costume: for a party, for a public occasion, for her death. Studying the image, Vittoria then dressed herself accordingly. For her final appearance, which showed her covered in blood around her crotch, she laboriously pushed a blood patch into her knickers to prepare for the effect. The decision sat (and sits) oddly with me, seemingly depriving Vittoria of any agency by assuring that her fate was always mapped out for her and she a passive, even self-enabling victim. Yet this also fitted with Flaminio’s rage, the production seemingly more concerned with how women were treated than with what women can or might do for themselves. Certainly Faye Castelow’s Isabella was rewarded for her active choice to take the blame for her divorce from Bracciano by being subjected to a particularly gruesome and undignified death, choking on poison and dying in a pool of excreted blood. The production seemed to want to dwell at length on the ugly effects of a twisted society on its women, a decision that either demands productive anger or becomes complicit in objectification and exploitation, and no doubt there will be productive arguments about the production’s achievement of its goals here.

Flaminio’s separation from the play’s other women ensured a very different kind of agency throughout. Camillo’s death, arranged by the ominous Dr Julio (Michael Moreland), involved him being led, giggling, into a glass-walled room populated by rope-brandishing women dressed in skin-tight white in order to engage in a bondage game. The faceless women set up the blindfolded man, but it was then Flaminio who entered the room, paid the women and throttled Camillo while the women shrieked and cackled. The images enabled by this permanent glass case resonated throughout the production as the repeated locale for violence or abuse, particularly of women – most obviously, the pitiful ‘House for Penitent Whores’ presided over by a stick-brandishing matron and populated by women wearing uniform t-shirt and shorts who barely moved, lost in a near-comatose state apart from when required (by their Catholic owners, no doubt) to chant Latin. One was pregnant, most were bruised. After being employed by Francisco, Lodovico entered the room and paid the matron to escort offstage one of the women for a liaison – the woman played, not coincidentally, by the same actor who had played his murdered love Isabella.

Against these sterile and abusive spaces stood the full splendour of the Catholic church. In this contemporary update, David Rintoul’s Cardinal Monticelso wore white trousers and a gold crucifix, but when revealed as Pope it was before an enormous Madonna to a choir of voices and Latin chanting. The impression, especially given the Pope’s unveiling on high, was of an unassailable force against which individuals had little power. The standout setpiece of the production saw Monticelso placing Vittoria centrestage for her public trial and the stage surrounded by paparazzi, ordering defendants and witnesses to strike specific poses. Monticelso’s approach reminded me of the media circus surrounding the Amanda Knox trials as he attempted to equate sexual activity with murderous intent, working the press and audience to condemn the woman. At the same time, Bushell came into her own with an articulate and righteous defence, pointing out that her only accuser was also her judge. Monticelso’s railroading of the trial was, of course, irresistible, but exposed for its hypocrisy.

‘How miserable a thing it is to die / ‘Mongst women howling!’ cried Bracciano as he writhed on the floor, and this line resonated in the context of the Roaring Girls season. The men of this production (especially Simon Scardifield’s Francisco, the bespectacled and nervy enabler of the counterplots, and diametrically opposed to Elphinstone’s confident Flaminio) were alternately engaged in displays of machismo (Lodovico slicing his hand in vengeance and killing himself by slashing his own throat, Bracciano publicly displaying his sexual and fighting prowess) or subterfuge, whether Francisco’s disguises or the brooding background presence of Peter Bray’s Marcello. There was little pleasant to hold onto in this world and, particularly in the case of Isabella, innocence ended up being treated in a very ugly way. That the production ended with the young child Giovanni tapping Vittoria’s body with his foot and giggling seemed designed to suggest that cycles of cold male cruelty to women would be perpetuated. If there was a roar underpinning this production, this was it.

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