Review: John Webster’s The White Devil, RSC, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Kirsty Bushell as Vittoria and David Sturzaker as Bracciano. Photo Tristram Kenton

Kirsty Bushell as Vittoria and David Sturzaker as Bracciano. Photo Tristram Kenton

For better or worse, I rarely research plays before I see them. Some plays, I know better than others, but when unfamiliar I don’t seek information out. Part of it it’s being otherwise busy, part of it it’s a belief the production will and should deliver in its own terms.

This is a long-winded way of saying I knew nothing of The White Devil as I sat on my seat to see Maria Aberg’s production. I knew it was John Webster, which meant the mysteries of life would be explored through the prism of grizzly deaths. I knew there would be sexual references because it was written on a sign as we were entering the auditorium. I couldn’t help but think “sexual references” felt much too tame for what I had in mind. In the end, this proved correct. My impression of the production was it felt tame and kept the audience at arm’s length.

The rather complicated story revolves around Vittoria, married to Camillo but in love with Duke Bracciano, and her sister Flaminio, aid to Bracciano. What Flaminio lacks in scruples makes up in ambition and her machinations kickstart a chain reaction of betrayal, death and unspeakable misery. Webster wrote the part as a male character but in this production it is played by Laura Elphinstone, all barbed psychotic energy.

I spent much of my time trying to hold onto the story, not because of the convoluted plot but because no themes were coming together. It’s quite possibly I missed many subtleties but I found it difficult to engage with dynamics that felt blurry and unfocused. Certain scenes hit the mark more than others: the big trial scene does justice to Vittoria’s independent spirit, and is played with thrilling and sensual defiance by Kirsty Bushell, but soon afterwards the focus is lost again in a flurry of decadent activity. Laura Elphinstone is never less than arresting but the character doesn’t feel capable of instigating and justifying all that destruction. There is a scene of devastating urgency when Liz Crowther’s Cornelia mourns her son, several deaths are inventive and with a hard unforgiving edge but none of these truly came together for me.

Naomi Dawson’s design creates a cold and unwelcoming world, whether that’s a palace or a prison. Without a doubt, that’s intentional but it somehow blunts the moral dilemmas: these characters live in hell no matter what choices they make.

Maria Aberg is an exceptionally talented director, and I loved many of her previous productions. The White Devil feels like an experiment that didn’t develop into a coherent idea and is less than the sum of its parts. No matter. I eagerly anticipate her next directorial effort.

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