The White Devil, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews
The White Devil, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The White Devil, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
This pitch black production of Webster's revenge tragedy is pitch perfect
It's no accident that when the Globe's Sam Wanamaker Playhouse opened in 2014 it was with The Duchess of Malfi. This wooden womb, with its thick darkness and close-pressed audience is made for the stifling, claustrophobic horror of revenge tragedy. Not since that original Malfi have we seen a production that has taken full advantage of the theatre, played with atmosphere to such horrible effect as Annie Ryan’s White Devil.
Corrupt authority, sexual scandal, political intrigue: not a Trump White House, but Webster’s satire, dark as the ink in which it was written. This tale of the sexually liberated and assertive Vittoria, oppressed by church and state with the connivance of her scheming brother and weak-willed lover, feels a little close to home at the moment. So it’s a blessing to find no topical references (a cheeky nod to Sorrentino’s The Young Pope aside) in Ryan’s Edwardian Gothic, steampunk vision, deftly designed by Jamie Vartan.
“Banish’d!” Lodovico’s opening line explodes like a gunshot, setting nerves twitching for a production that barely drops out of a headlong run at any point. The percussive blows of Webster’s plot, death punctuating every act, knock the drama from crisis to crisis in a series of dramatic set pieces that glow with care here.
The courtroom scene makes such disquieting sense in this interior, with the encircling audience pressed into service as an unwitting jury. Kate Stanley-Brennan’s Vittoria paces and clutches at the bars of the wooden dock, and only the unnecessary cross-casting of Sarah Vevers as the lawyer, dilutes the visual power of the image: the woman caged, while the men look on and weigh her fate. Isabella's climactic encounter with her unfaithful husband (Mercy Ojelade's Isabella, pictured below) works beautifully, as does the conjuring scene in which Jamie Ballard’s Bracciano and Anna Healy’s necromancer witness visions projected as if in silent films, set to Tom Lane’s grotesque live soundrack. It’s a rare flicker of humour, but one quickly snuffed out by the ensuing action.We’ve seen some Devils recently (Maria Aberg’s chief among them) that have amplified the play’s gender concerns at the risk of silencing all others. Ryan swings perhaps a little too far round the other way. With both Vevers and Jamael Westman’s Marcello cast against gender, the cruelty of the play’s bleak closing vision – women dead or mad, a new regime of men clearing away the bodies of their predecessors before taking up their rule – is diluted to no real gain. The physical strength and dominance of Stanley-Brennan and Shanaya Rafaat’s Zanche only plays into this reading.
Plotting horrors without getting a drop of blood on his robes, Garry Cooper is a smooth-talking Monticelso, nuanced in a way neither Fergal McElherron’s toothy imbecile of a Camillo nor Joseph Timms’ likely lad of a cockney Flamineo – why, when the his mother and sister are straight RP? – are not allowed to be. Stanley-Brennan commands all her interactions as Vittoria, and needs no loading of the dramatic dice to help her to victory. Her ferocious certainty is further set off by Ballard’s nervy, petulant Bracciano, who sways in the gales of her temper.
Webster’s devil may be white, but Ryan’s production is black to its core. Crisp, pacy and deliciously atmospheric, this grotesque satire offers a timely wallow to anyone in need of a bit of fictional respite from the political facts.
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