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THE WHITE DEVIL Wanamaker, SE1

CORPSES BY CANDLELIGHT

 

 

“Dost thou imagine thou canst slide on blood, and not be tainted in a shameful fall?” asks Cardinal Monticello of the murderous Lodovico, a man who tends to write off his homicides as “but flea-bitings”.

 

Well, of course not. Everyone is tainted in this most unrestrained of Jacobean revenge tragedies, and all but a Pope, a boy Duke and a couple of assistant murderers get stonking death-scenes. Flamineo actually gets two.  It was written by John Webster in 1612, inspired by an Italian elopement and murder, and is as violent as his masterpiece The Duchess of Malfi , which opened this lovely candlelit playhouse a few years back. But it doesn’t have quite the horror and sustained tension that directors find in the later play, nor its shining sense of real virtue in the heroine. It also tips over into absurdity more often. In this production the text is adjusted ,and cut of some of its intellectual wranglings, by Michael West, and Annie Ryan’s direction goes hell-for-leather with the shouting and murdering, sometimes at the expense of the more memorable  lines.
But enough of them hit home, like “We think that caged birds sing, when indeed they cry”. And as the main victim and sinner Vittoria Kate Stanley-Brennan has an arrogant, beautiful dignity and gives her lines the weight they need.  A strong point is Ryan’s clarity: I admit to a quick refreshing glance at the plot outline in advance, but overheard chatter in the interval proves it was clear enough to newcomers. Vittoria and the Duke, both otherwise married,  are smitten: her atrocious brother Flamineo is playing the pimp to further the affair.    He is strikingly played by Joseph TImms in the style of a longhaired, joking, glottal-stopped, crotch-clutching Russell-Brand-alike in a leather jacket.  It works surprisingly well, and in the dim candlelight the more or less modern dress doesn’t jar either, girls being in grand dresses and noblemen in skirted leather coats.
The first couple of murders get going briskly, assisted by magic overhead, a balcony ,a trapdoor  and a poisoned portrait . Webster loved his gadgets, like an early James Bond: later there is discussion of killing the Duke with a poisoned tennis racket handle, but they settle for a poisoned helmet. It makes you realise how very restrained Shakespeare was.   Vittoria (in a scene where Stanley-Brennan excels with real seriousness) is tried as a whore by the prim Cardinal,  who then becomes Pope with sonorous clanging bells, enabling her to elope and marry her Duke to a very jolly trumpet tune from the musicians overhead ( previously condemned to a great deal of Psycho-style violin angst in Tom Lane’s atmospheric score).
Meanwhile – pay attention at the back there – Lodovico ,who loved the murdered wife of the Duke, returns from exile to avenge her, Flamineo wipes out his brother (good work in the grieving from Anna Healy as poor old Mum Cornelia), and so to a barking-mad OTT showdown with four pistols, culminating in a heap of candlelit corpses, who have to rise rather sheepishly for the curtain call.

 
This play can, by fierce determination,  be made into a darkly credible epic of lust and murder, its huge emotions taken seriously.   Doesn’t quite happen here. The candelight helps, and it is vivid, entertaining and probably truer to the spirit of the period that way.  Though I have to note that in the programme, amid more interesting observations, there is a ripe bit of oh-for-gods-sakery from the director attempting to relate it all to “post-Brexit, post-Trump…It has to feel like those debates, Hillary standing there and this monster prowling behind her like a wolf” .
Nice try, but we don’t need it. More interesting to reflect on its own century’s fierce protestant spirit, and villains as dastardly foreign papists.…

 
box office Box office 020 7401 9919 to 16 april
rating three   3 Meece Rating

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