The White Devil

I’m pretty familiar with John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, but my knowledge of his other major play The White Devil is much more limited. I was less than enamoured with the RSC’s production of a few years back, but luckily this production at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse hits all the right spots.

The convoluted plot begins with the love affair between Brachiano and Vittoria, who are both married to other people. Its pretty hard to follow, but director Annie Ryan does her best with the material and makes it as clear as it probably can be. My favourite characters include Flamineo, Vittoria’s brother, who wins the audience on side with his wry asides.

The costumes are beautiful, giving the production a Victorian Gothic/steampunk flavour. It got me wondering whether the Gothic literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might not have its roots in Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Another striking thing about the production is its complex use of candlelight to create atmosphere and change the mood of the scene. This has always been the case with the Playhouse, but it seems even more apparent here. The cast tackle the complex language well, bringing clarity to a difficult work.

While not up to the standards of The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil is an important Jacobean play, and I can’t imagine it getting a better production than it has got here.


The White Devil

I’m a big fan of Jacobean dramatist John Webster, but I had never seen his play The White Devil until I saw it at the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. Performed as part of the Roaring Girls season, it was directed by Maria Aberg.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t keen. Having never seen the play before, I am uncertain as to whether it was the play itself I disliked, or the production. However I didn’t feel that the stark modern setting added much to the play: I am not opposed to modern productions of older plays in principle, but I do feel that Webster works best in a dark shadowy space – think the Jacobean theatre at the Globe, or even the Old Vic.

I did like the acting: Kirsty Bushell made a sympathetic, vulnerable Vittoria, while Keir Charles was effective as Camillo. As Flaminio, Laura Elphinstone was possibly my favourite – a great example of how cross-gender casting can really work. However, I was left feeling as though the play didn’t really engage me.

Cover Her Face

The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster is one of my favourite plays, and when I saw this brand new adaptation by Daniel Fulvio and Martin Moriarty advertised, I was intrigued straight away. Performed by Inky Cloak at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club, this site-specific production, called Cover Her Face, proved to be excellent.

Starring third gender performer LaJohn Joseph in the main role of the Duchess, the play, with an otherwise all-male cast, is set in the conservative Fifties and follows the Duchess’ quest to live as and with whom she chooses outside of social norms and gender boundaries. There’s some rejigging of dialogue and rearranging of scenes to fit the new agenda, but overall it works well. The room of the working men’s club with its faded glamour proves an ideal setting for the play, although I think the seating could have been arranged more appropriately: there was some head-twisting required to take in the different performance locations. I also loved the costumes, particularly LaJohn’s stunning dresses.

The acting was very good all-round, particularly from Joseph, whose strength and determination really comes through, and from Christopher Tester as the malcontent Bosola. Tom Cuthbertson is a strong Ferdinand, and instead of the Cardinal we have a corrupt politician, an excellent Jack Johns.

Completely different to the more traditional production of The Duchess of Malfi showing at the Globe’s new Jacobean theatre, this is an excellent, brave and daring version of a classic play.

The Duchess of Malfi

It feels as though I’ve been waiting for the Globe’s new Jacobean theatre forever; I can’t remember when its construction was announced, but it seems to have taken an age. At last it has arrived, and what better production to inaugurate this beautiful new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (named after the founder of the modern Globe) than John Webster’s classic, The Duchess of Malfi?

I am hugely fond of this play: it might be over the top and full of brutality, but it has memorable characters, beautiful language, and is eminently quotable. I was lucky enough to study it for A Level, which I think gave me a bit more insight and understanding. This is the third production of the play I’ve seen, and I haven’t tired of it yet.

I’ll go hunt the badger by owl-light; ’tis a deed of darkness

The new theatre has been designed to be as authentic as possible. This means, wonderfully, that it is lit by candles. I have no idea how they got this past Health & Safety, but I’m so glad they did. Chandeliers are lowered and raised from the ceiling, lit and snuffed out as the occasion requires it. Characters bring in their own candlesticks, which is especially effective in the darker scenes. In one particularly atmospheric moment at the beginning of the second half, the theatre is plunged into darkness. This is The Duchess of Malfi as it was meant to be performed – I can imagine a Jacobean audience gasping in terror as the flickering candles reveal the supposed bodies of Antonio and his son, grotesquely presented to the terrified Duchess. Panels on the walls of the theatre let in natural light when required, but most of the time, the candles rule. The fact that the theatre is extremely small, and the pit seats at least are immensely close to the stage, lends an unsurpassed intimacy to the play. I was so engrossed I hardly noticed the discomfort of the lightly-padded wooden seats.

I do account this world a tedious theatre; / For I do play a part in it ‘gainst my will

This traditional-dress production is full-length and absorbing throughout. Among the cast are some of the Globe’s regulars, including James Garnon as a coldly malevolent Cardinal, and Sarah MacRae as the Duchess’ warm-hearted servant, Cariola. Sean Gilder’s Bosola is a mercenary malcontent who is overcome by the Duchess’ dignified persona, while Denise Gough is excellent as the spirited Julia.

Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young

Gemma Arterton is superb as the stately, poised Duchess, revealing a sympathetic warmth to one of the best female characters in Jacobean drama. David Dawson is fantastic as her brother Ferdinand, clearly on the verge of madness as the play begins, obviously desirous of incest with his sister, and chilling towards the end as he descends into insanity.

Whether we fall by ambition, blood, or lust, / Like diamonds we are cut with our own dust

Where Dominic Dromgoole’s production excels is in the sense of intimacy it produces. In particular, during the scene in the Duchess’s chamber when she, Antonio and Cariola are conversing, we get a sense of the true love and depth of the couple’s relationship, which means it is all the more tragic when the Duchess is taken by her brothers. It’s easy to laugh at the over the top nature of the play, but in this production, you are left really feeling for the characters.

The play continues until the middle of February. I believe it is sold out, but keep an eye out for returns – it is certainly worth it.

The Duchess of Malfi

I studied John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy The Duchess of Malfi at A Level, and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I was delighted to discover that the Old Vic was producing the play this year. Though I had seen a student production before, I had never seen it performed professionally so I was really looking forward to it.

The play tells the story of the beautiful widowed Duchess, who asserts her right to choose her own husband against opposition from her two wicked brothers. As is to be expected in a tragedy, this does not go down well.

The setting for the action is dramatic and stately, shadowy and with several twisting corridors. Characters hide behind masks, and intrigue is the order of the day. The two brothers, the Duke and the Cardinal, are suitably threatening: the one lusting after his sister and slowly descending into madness, and the other coolly plotting his sister’s death. Antonio, the Duchess’ secret husband, is as ineffectual as I remember from my previous knowledge of the play, hesitating and vacillating. The servant Bosola, in some ways the most intriguing character of the drama, is entertaining and ambiguous, confiding directly to the audience and harbouring bitter resentment against his master the Duke.

Eve Best starred as the Duchess and was brilliant. She stood out as the most dignified, lovable, determined and brave player in the drama. The Duchess is one of the best female characters in Jacobean drama and Best made the most of the role.

When I saw the play, the Old Vic was emptier than I’ve ever seen it, which is a huge shame as this really is a fantastic play. I highly recommend that you go and see it.