The White Devil by the RSC 1996
Directed by Gale Edwards
Philip Voss, Philip Quast (Lodovico, an Italian Count), Jane Gurnett, Richard McCabe, Alistdair Simpson, Caroline Blakiston, Adam Godley, Martina Laird, Ray Fearon, Teresa Banham, Davis Fahm, Stephen Boxer, Paul Ritter, Andrew Hesker, Stephen Billington David Foxxe, Adrian Schiller, Joe Rake, Janet Whiteside, Katia Caballero, Jacquelyn Yorke, Nina Sosanya.
Count Lodovico is banished from Rome for debauchery and murder: his friends promise to work for the repeal of his sentence.
The Duke of Brachiano has conceived a violent passion for Vittoria Corombona, daughter of a noble but impoverished Venetian family, despite the fact they are both already married. Vittoria's brother Flamineo employed as a secretary to Brachiano has been scheming to bring his sister and the Duke together in the hope of advancing his own career. The plan is foiled somewhat by the arrival of Brachiano's wife Isabella, escorted by her brother and Cardinal Monticelso. They are both outraged by the rumours of Brachiano's infidelity and set out to encourage him to make the affair open, but before it happens Brachiano and Vittoria's brother arrange to have Vittoria's husband and Isabella murdered.
Vittoria is put on trial for murder of her husband and although there is no real evidence against her, she is condemned by the Cardinal to imprisonment in a convent for penitent whores. Flamineo pretends madness in order to protect himself from awkward sugestions. The banished Count Lodovico is pardoned and returns to Rome: confessing he had been secretly in love with Isabella, he vows to avenge her death, Isabella's brother Francisco also plots revenge. He pens a love letter to Vittoria, which falls into the hands of Brachiano. It fuels his jealousy and forces him to elope with Vittoria. Cardinal Monticelso is elected Pope and as his first act he excommunicates Vittoria and Brachiano.
Vittoria and Brachiano now married hold court in Padua. Three mysterious strangers have arrived to enter Brachiano's service: these are Francisco, disguised as Mulinassar a Moor, and Lodovico and Gasparo, disguised as Capuchin monks, all conspiring to avenge Isabella's death. They begin their revenge with poisoning Brachiano: as he is dying, Lodovico and Gasparo reveal themselves to him. Next Zanche, Vittoria's Moorish maid, who has fallen in love with her supposed countryman Mulinassar, reveals to him the murders of Isabella and Camillo and Flamineo's part in them.
Flaineo is banished from court and sensing that his crimes are catching up with he goes to see Vittoria. He tries to persuade her to a suicide pact but each deceives the other. Lodovico and Gasparo complete their revenge by killing both of them.
The Observer, 28 April 1996
The Royal Shakespeare Company opens the new Stratford-upon-Avon season, and celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Swan Theatre, with a vigorous and virtually uncut revival 'the company's first' of John Webster's Jacobean tragedy The White Devil.
So effective was the accumulation of poisonings, stabbings, shootings, and garrotings at Thursday's matinee that a schoolgirl on the front banquette of the warm, wooden quasi-Elizabethan interior, fainted during the last act, banged her head on the front of the apron stage and revived a few minutes later only to see that the carnage was still in full flow.
While Edward Bond's rewrite of the piece 20 years ago pointed up the heartlessness in the machinations of the corrupt Italian court by draining the action of passion, Gale Edwards's production goes for the real gung-ho goriness. The stage steams with lust. Bodices are unlaced, bodkins bared and codpieces set a-quivering.
The sneering, salivating Flamineo of Richard McCabe, pimping for his married sister, Vittoria Corombona, fixes her illicit liaison with Ray Fearon's swaggering Duke Brachiano; the poor fellow ends up in a poisoned helmet, sweating blood like coagulated maggots and burning nearly to death before his neck's broken.
Webster's wonderful, hermetic world of vice, metaphor and chain reaction, unimpeded by subplots, takes us to the heart of darkness and corruption. Jane Gurnett as Vittoria finds a source of wisdom and resignation in the vengeful consequences to her reasonable itch (she is married to a foolish dullard). While Flamineo is revealed as a cut-throat transformed by experience, and an impressive Philip Quast leads a perverse mission of mercy as the devoted Lodovico.
The Swan was founded to explore the repertoire, and to reassess, not reassert, masterpieces, but The White Devil is so rarely seen, and usually bowdlerised, that this production is fully vindicated.