John Webster had his hand in a number of plays but he is best known for his two revenge tragedies, The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil. The Duchess is produced regularly but The White Devil seems to be almost completely ignored. Scholars refer to the two plays as masterpieces of the revenge tragedy genre but theatre produces don’t seem to agree about the box office value at least of The White Devil.
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre has been producing some pretty arcane plays in the small, indoor Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and this year it gave us the chance to see the play which premiered in 1612 and was a flop.
Director Annie Ryan and dramaturg Michael West performed serious surgery on the text and tried to give thee play a comprehensible narrative and a dramatic structure to keep the audience in the loop.
One of the major decisions seems to have been to perform the play in semi-darkness. The lighting is provided mostly by candelabras and we rarely get to see well-lit faces. That is one way of emphasizing the murderous evil of just about all the characters but it does have a downside.
If you don’t have a sharp memory or an explanatory character list in front of you, you will be scrambling to figure out who wiped out whom. Staring from the top, we have the Dukes of Florence (Paul Bazely) and Bracciano (Jamie Ballard). Marcello (Jamael Westman) works for the Duke Florence and his brother Flamineo (Joseph Timms) works for the Duke Bracciano. The brothers are poor and their sister Vittoria (Kate Stanley-Brennan) is married to Camillo (Fergal McElherron) who is rich but old.
So far so good. But
The Duke of Bracciano (who is married) is in love with Vittoria and her brother Flamineo sees an opportunity. Why not get rid of Camillo and the Duchess, he suggests to the Duke, and Vittoria will be yours. Rest in peace Duchess and arrivederci Camillo.
But the dead duchess is the sister of the Duke of Florence and Camillo is the nephew of Cardinal Monticelso (Garry Cooper) who will soon get the big promotion to Pope. The brothers are arrested but beat the charges and Vittoria is sent to a House for Fallen Women. The Duke of Florence and the Pope swear revenge.
Bracciano is not about to give up the gorgeous Vittoria so he rescues her from The House and makes her a duchess in a palace and gives good jobs to her brothers and her mother. The Duke of Florence and a couple of friendly enforcers visit the palace in disguise and give a final sendoff to Bracciano, Flamineo murders his brother Marcello, And Vittoria and Flamineo and Zanche (Shanaya Rafaat), the lady-in-waiting are dispatched permanently. We are getting near the end. A new Duke, Giovanni (Mollie Lambert) takes over and he orders the murderers murdered.
Who is Giovanni? He is Bracciano’s son and Florence’s nephew.
I give this summary because that is almost what I got from the performance and not without the aid of a summary.
The actors generate some energy and the play has some historical interest as an example of a popular genre in the early seventeenth century. But there is no moral centre, there is not even a decent character. Who is the white devil?
If you are a theatre lover, when you take your grandchildren to see The Duchess of Malfi, you will be able to tell them that you have in fact seen the other play by John Webster but you can’t remember anything about it except that it involved a lot of murders and it was acted in semi-darkness.
The White Devil by John Webster opened on February 1 and will play until April 16, 2017 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, London. www.shakespearesglobe.com