The Theatreguide.London Review
The White Devil
Menier Chocolate Factory Autumn 2008
John Webster's 1612 drama is one of those Shakespeare's Contemporaries plays better known to academics than theatregoers, so a rare production - especially one as good as this - is very welcome.
Typical of Jacobean tragedy, Webster's play has a convoluted plot, an element of shock-horror and lots of dead bodies by the end. One particular virtue of Jonathan Munby's modern dress production is that we are never confused about who's who, who loves and/or hates who, and who's killing who for what reasons.
Briefly, two nobles, both married to others, begin an affair and plot and accomplish the deaths of their spouses. Then the relatives of the dead plot and accomplish their revenges.
The process involves a poisoned portrait, a deadly fall off some gym equipment, a poisoned helmet, a brother pimping his sister, a brother killing a brother, several disguises, a three-way suicide pact in which everybody double-crosses everybody else, and the kitchen sink.
(Webster was also a bit of a magpie. The idea of the pimping brother was probably borrowed from Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedy, a courtroom scene probably comes from Shakespeare's Henry VIII, and a scene of a madwoman singing and handing out flowers over a dead body is unquestionably taken wholesale from Hamlet.)
Director Munby and his admirable cast keep all of this clear and even get us as involved with the people as Webster's rather thin poetry and characterisations will allow.
(Oddly, the one burst of eloquence in the whole play comes in a Cardinal's cursing description of what makes a woman a whore. It is so different in style from the rest that it was probably stolen from some other writer.)
Transverse staging - with the audience on two sides of a narrow playing strip – is not my favourite set-up, but Munby uses is better than just about any director I've ever seen before. He has also skilfully edited the sprawling text down to a fast-moving two and a half hours.
Acting honours go to Claire Price as the adulteress, Darrell D'Silva as her lover, Aiden McArdle as the pimping brother, Louis Hilyer as the chief avenger and Christopher Godwin as the moral-when-it-suits-him Cardinal.
You don't have to be a Renaissance scholar to want to see this play, though students of the drama of the period should rush to it. Director and cast have made it thoroughly accessible and a romping good melodrama.
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