The first production in 1612 of John Websters The White Devil was a calamitous failure. It was no use, complained the exasperated playwright, performing the thing in the dead of winter to a chilly audience.
Watching Jonathan Munbys production at the Menier Chocolate Factory I rather wondered how that first crowd had time to notice their icy toes: the plays so richly stuffed with gleeful immorality, and violence both casual and calculated, that I almost forgot my agonised head and hollow cough.
The White Devil is a revenge tragedy, setting out to expose corruption in both court and church. Based in part on a real murder, it focuses on the lovers Duke Brachiano and the beautiful Vittoria, each married to the dull and worthy sorts who are inevitably cuckolded onstage. Encouraged by various hangers-on, deplored by various members of family and clergy, they contrive to be free to marry – but inevitably find the path to domestic bliss runs distinctly rough.
This production does nothing to dampen the highly-coloured dialogue and rococo plotting that makes Webster the Channel 4 to Shakespeares BBC. Indeed it revels in it, the cast seizing every chance to spit with anger or shriek in rage or pain, the set design glorying in many a candle and red velvet curtain. Nonetheless the characters are often sympathetically presented and only too plausible: Aidan McArdles Flamineo, secretary and pander to the priapic Brachiano, is superbly creepy, his black nail polish perhaps an unnecessary touch, but entirely fitting to his amoral self-loathing and manipulations.
Claire Price as Vittoria is notably persuasive: she is morally complex; blazingly proud and vulnerable; terrified of the consequences of her lust-affair but capable of holding her own against the suave malice of a Cardinal sitting in judgement against her. The latter, played by Christopher Godwin, is perhaps the plays real treat: with an imposing stage presence, he is six feet several of cruel propriety, and on producing his black book listing the citys blackest souls one immediately sets to wondering if here is the titles White Devil. When he becomes Pope, it is signal for the blood thats been lapping at the rim of the cup to come spilling over in earnest.
There are moments when the productions willingness to take on the plays vertiginously high drama without a trace of irony becomes problematic. As the wronged wife of Brachiano Claire Cox is a model of pious restraint, and handles Websters sometimes too-emphatic lines with elegance. Her acrobatic death-throes, however, made me uncomfortable – and not because they evoked in me a horror of being poisoned.
The masque-scene in which the doctor shows Brachiano the methods of his murders here becomes a kind of drug-induced trance. The decision to have a portrait of the Duke mysteriously swoop onstage may have worked better had it not, mid-swoop, become wedged in the candle-flanked door. Websters frequent flashes of black wit are handled rather well, perhaps especially with the doctor-poisoner, whose soft white hands and unlined brow are transparently those of a pyschopath.
This production is perhaps unlikely to gather a new generation of Webster fans: it is too unapologetically Websterish, if you like. It struck me that its the Jacobean theatres equivalent of the Jeremy Kyle show – but theres nothing wrong with occasionally exposing all thats worst and most torrid in our human natures. Especially, to my mind, if there can also be a great deal in the way of red velvet, guttering candles, and sinister Cardinals with waxed moustaches