Those of our self-appointed moral guardians who fulminate against violent and sexual excess in contemporary screen dramas have presumably either never seen a Jacobean tragedy onstage or chosen to ignore that the aforementioned strains are part of a long and, so to speak, honourable cultural tradition. John Webster's The White Devil contains the usual crop of murderous infidelities and political intrigues and, in Gale Edwards's fine production for the RSC (whose Stratford opening David Murray rightly admired in these pages last April), a light sprinkling of incest to boot.
Comparisons and contrasts with Edwards's other work currently on show are illuminating, despite the wild disjunction of genre. Whereas her direct approach renders Jesus Christ Superstar so clear as to be transparent, a similar attitude creates a sense of unity and narrative flow between the major scenes which were Webster's real forte. Even when basing his story, as here, on a true account of Italian sexual and dynastic machinations, the author was not afraid to tie such scenes together with sometimes awkward knots; Edwards makes of the play a coherent three-hour whole.
Nor does she shy away from the nature of Jacobean tragedy to tack across the wind of grim comedy; horrified laughs are neither avoided nor, for the most part, sought out (a minor exception being Adrian Schiller's carbuncular physician, who looks around him in bewilderment on hearing the epithet "honest doctor"). Edwards's way with gore is also impressive; Brachiano (Ray Fearon)'s death from a poisoned fencing mask, in particular, would not dissatisfy fans of George A. Romero.
Although, in general, everyone seems to be intriguing against everyone else at the instigation of everyone else besides, the twin foci are Vittoria Corombona and her brother Flamineo. Jane Gurnett's Vittoria is first and foremost that staple of the genre, a woman who is sexually independent; her bloody predatoriness is simply an adjunct to this autonomy. Gurnett is energetically, even defiantly, alluring for the majority of the play, until compelled by the script to decline into weeping and screaming. Richard McCabe is splendid as the malcontent Flamineo, a superb compound of oil, bile and vitriol, but most importantly imbued with a black understanding both of what goes on around him and of himself. It is made graphically, gropingly apparent here that Flamineo has incestuous desires for his sister, but McCabe never threatens to become such an obsessive as Ferdinand in Webster's The Duchess Of Malfi; this is simply one more facet of his warped character.
All the main actors – Fearon's more or less justly punished Brachiano, Stephen Boxer's cold, Machiavellian Francisco, Philip Voss (a natural Pope if ever I saw one) – are at rare ease with their often problematic roles and language, making this a Devil of almost Luciferic magnificence.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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