Reviewed by Andrew Cowie
John Webster’s The White Devil must have a label on it somewhere in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s files saying, ‘Avoid this play, and if you must do it, make sure a woman directs it’. Maria Aberg’s new production at the Swan Theatre in Stratford is the first since the Australian director Gale Edwards directed it in 1996 and with lines like: ‘A woman, an ass and a walnut tree / Bear more fruit when beaten they be’, it needs a safe pair of feminist hands.
Aberg brings an outsider’s perspective to the classical English repertoire. She’s Swedish, she didn’t move to England until she was twenty, and she’s not particularly interested in the classical theatre tradition. As she said in an interview, ‘Being faithful to theatrical tradition is not the same as being faithful to the text’. So while Greg Doran’s ‘serve the text’ approach can be illuminating but is sometimes dull, Aberg’s ‘why this? why now?’ style of contemporary drama can jolt a play into the 21st century but she really pisses some people off.
She’s a feminist for whom the gender imbalance in Shakespeare’s plays is a problem; as she said in the same interview, ‘It’s depressing when you sit in a room with 20 actors and see that five of them are women’. While the RSC’s colour-blind casting policy is now well-established, if sometimes inconsistently applied, they are still getting their heads round gender-blind casting which, for Aberg, is a given: ‘I think we have a responsibility as theatre-makers to consider gender-blind casting as much as we consider colour-blind casting, I just think it’s really basic.’
In The White Devil, as in her previous work, Aberg is interested in the social construction of women’s gendered identities. In As You Like It she celebrated Rosalind’s and Celia’s freedom to create new identities for themselves in the forest of Arden; but in The White Devil there is no forest, and no escape from the identities imposed on women by the male characters and the patriarchal institutions which reinforce and maintain them.
The set is a plain tiled floor. The upstage area is separated off with white net curtains onto which Nathan Parker’s videos will be projected, and behind the curtains are sliding glass doors which, when closed, create a shop window effect displaying women in various stages of objectification and commodification.
The play opens with Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell) getting dressed on stage, a scene which will be repeated later in the play as she prepares to present herself in different patriarchal institutions, at her trial and then her wedding. She enters in plain white underwear and puts on a blonde wig, high heeled shoes and a tight sequinned dress turning herself into a sexualised object of male desire watched by the audience and by her sister Flaminio (the cross-gender cast Laura Elphinstone).
The rest of the cast then enter and go into a dance routine reminiscent of Paolo Sorrentino’s film, The Great Beauty. The play then follows the progression from amoral lust between the married Vittoria and her married lover, Bracciano (David Sturzaker), to its unhappy consequences, first for their respective spouses and then for themselves.
Webster used a story nominally about Catholic Rome to smuggle past the theatre censor a satire about corruption in the Protestant court of James I, and in the same way Aberg uses a 17th century Jacobean tragedy to explore 21st century feminist issues. A corrupt ruling class in bed with a complacent church and a complicit judiciary has an unmistakable contemporary tang, but her real focus is gender. When he suspects Vittoria of infidelity, Bracciano is consumed by jealousy and says, ‘Woman to man is either a god or a wolf’ and we see his madonna/whore objectification played out principally on the body of Vittoria, who is at various times sexualised, demonised (she replaces her blond wig with a black one for her trial), and stripped when she is condemned and thrown into a whores’ prison full of bruised and battered women.
Webster’s play is full of references to visions, either dreams of the future or ghosts from the past, which Aberg relates to the world of gender performance which her characters inhabit. But for a play and a production so interested in surface appearances some of the costumes looked more Primark than Versace, and Nathan Parker’s video projection felt tacked on rather than integrated into the live action on stage. You’d think a play about sex and murder would be more fun to watch but, although I read the synopsis before I went, I found Webster’s notoriously convoluted plot difficult to follow. It’s a handsome production, it’s well-acted and it’s not afraid to ask some important questions; but I felt detached from it and I wonder if Aberg pursued her argument, as valid and as important as it is, at the expense of Webster’s drama.