Death becomes her

From 'St Joan' to 'The Taming of the Shrew', Gale Edwards has a reputation for bold productions. She also shares Webster's obsession with death. Now she is to direct the RSC's first 'The White Devil'. By Georgina Brown
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The Independent Culture
Death orgies - Tarantino without the laughs - are Webster's forte. T S Eliot has seen to it that even those who know nothing of Webster's plays are well-versed in the fact that he "was much obsessed by death". His plays are full of adultery, corruption, dumb shows and apparitions but Death invariably has the biggest, juiciest part. He is the ultimate and immediate adversary; and he has many guises - he can be as swift and sudden as a sword-stroke or scheming and ritualistic - a portrait kissed each night is brushed with poison, and thus devotion proves fatal; he can be plotted against but is rarely defeated. Should audiences leave one of Webster's plays feeling anything at all, it will be that death has been sated and that they have, temporarily at least, been spared. If The White Devil is about anything, it is that death is a harsh fact rather than a vague and unsettling possibility. Hardly for the lily-livered. No wonder most directors stick to Shakespeare (who cast Death very differently, as a welcome nothingness which, like a cosy eiderdown, finally enfolds the exhausted hero).

The director Gale Edwards is not one of them. But then she is untypical in many ways. She is Australian and female and as gutsy, game and unaffected as any Sheila. She has been dying to get her hands on Webster for years. "I too am obsessed by death," she admits. Her obsession began when her parents died in "a shocking and violent tragedy" (she will not expand). The nine-year-old only child went to live with her grandmother. Eight years later, and again very suddenly, her grandmother died, leaving the schoolgirl without any immediate family. "I have a very palpable and potent attitude to death. Death has dealt me some major blows. Twice my life was spun out of control by something completely unexpected and violent and I can remember the horror of each occasion moment by moment. People think that death is something that creeps up on you - people get sick and they take years to die. It isn't the case. The significant deaths in my life have come from far left like a fist - bang - and have knocked me off my course, cataclysmically. The deaths in this play are like that - cataclysmic."

Edwards has other good reasons for staging The White Devil, not least that it will be a first for the RSC. She spent a fortnight reading every Jacobean tragedy she could find ("a wrist-slashing experience") before deciding it was the most interesting. "I adore the language and the imagery, but most of all I love its flamboyant recklessness. It feels like an outpouring - it's much less sophisticated than The Duchess of Malfi. It feels like a roller-coaster ride or a ghost-train - you go for the thrills and spills along the way." She also believes that Webster's "fascination and abhorrence" of violence will find resonances with today's audiences. "Webster was an English lawyer and yet he's written this play set in Rome with this passionate bloodlust and sexuality rampant in the world. There's part seduction-enjoyment in his attitude and part repulsion which I find fascinating, though I think ultimately it's an indictment of violence. Webster says some extraordinary things about women - the misogyny is appalling - there's a real fear of their sexuality and what they unleash in the world. Vittoria must be crushed - she has brought anarchy about because she is having an affair. She has put a flame to a world of order. But my job isn't to wrench some feminist or political meaning from the play - it's to create a piece of theatre."

The play has had a chequered and uneasy history. "Methinks a very poor play," said Samuel Pepys when he saw it in 1661; Kenneth Tynan thought it the finest play written between Timon of Athens (1623) and Otway's Venice Preserv'd (1682). Despite the marvellous tangy poetry, it's a savagely difficult read. The narrative is extremely dense and it's almost impossible to work out who's who. "It's rare to find anyone who has ever felt it worked on stage," confesses Edwards. "We're labouring very hard to make the story clear." Nevertheless, the eagerness with which she has seized this gauntlet is characteristic. She made her directorial debut in Britain with St Joan - wordy, pompous and often indigestibly clever-clogs Shaw - which she managed to keep thrillingly alive on stage for a full three hours. Her clean, bold and operatic production flew scarlet flags beneath luminous blue skies (she is collaborating with the same designer, Peter J Davison, on The White Devil) and drew an incandescent performance from Imogen Stubbs as the teenage ingenue. The RSC's Adrian Noble saw the final matinee and immediately invited her to stage Shakespeare's most disagreeable and unacceptable play, The Taming of the Shrew, on the main-stage at Stratford. Again she pulled it off, transforming the play into Christopher Sly the drunken tinker's dream of revenge against womankind and transforming the comedienne Josie Lawrence into an accomplished Shakespearean actress (for this, presumably, The White Devil at the Swan is Edwards's reward). Her leading lady in The White Devil, Jane Gurnett (Rachel from Casualty) describes Edwards's approach as "visceral - not at all airy-fairy or intellectual. She is wonderfully unjaundiced - I think that's because she is an outsider to an extent - and is very centred and never panics. It helps that she appears to have faith in one and in herself. It builds confidence, which is vital." If Gale Edwards's productions have anything so crude as a hallmark, it's for bold interpretation and bolder visualisation. Offers have flooded in - a little Turgenev with Alan Bates for Chichester Festival, a major revival in September of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar ("his most important child, his masterpiece - I think it has an almost mythological significance both in his life and career and in the journey of musicals. To be entrusted with this piece is fantastic").

It's tempting to say that 40-year-old Gale Edwards went from nowhere to the West End in one easy step, but it isn't true. At home in Australia, in Sydney, Edwards is a very big fish indeed, and has for some time now been able to take her pick of the best shows, subsidised and commercial, tragedy, comedy, opera and musicals. She was the obvious choice for assistant director when Trevor Nunn needed help with the Australian production of Les Miserables. "It was the designer apprenticeship - he taught me about precise storytelling, how to cope with actors, not by being flamboyant but by being personal, clear and calm, and he taught me the importance of the phrase 'nerves of steel'. " He also became her champion, suggesting to Andrew Lloyd Webber that she should direct the Australian premiere of Aspects of Love, "Andrew's difficult child". He liked what he saw and brought it back to Britain to become the touring show.

Though she's too modest to suggest it herself, Edwards has clearly outgrown Australia. "It's not that the theatre there is any less exciting - it's not - we just do less of it. In my home town of Sydney there's five theatres. In the West End there's probably 50. You can't make a qualitative difference, but you can make a quantitative one. Your chance of seeing great theatre here is exaggerated by the numbers game and if you're a hungry artist, you don't want to sit back and get comfortable. If you want to get better then I suspect you've got to keep yourself in a position which is rather unsafe - not that I've ever planned anything. I've been lucky."

She is extremely driven, unflaggingly enthusiastic and single-minded - the legacy, one suspects, of her early and forced independence - but the driving passion has been "an unwavering love of the theatre". Her success - and the itinerant life it has dictated - has demanded sacrifices, however, in the partner and babies department. "It was never a question of will I have a baby or do a play. In fact, I keep waking up and thinking, when did this decision get made? I keep kidding myself it's still ahead of me."

In the meantime, she continues to camp in friends' spare rooms, not daring to buy a flat and stake her space. "That seems like a terrifying idea because it would be admitting something. I'm thinking more and more of England as home. I quite like the English," she teases. "I find them delightful and only occasionally infuriating. And I'd like to think that this life has some sort of permanence but I'm too frightened to suggest that it might. Theatre is a transient world - it's highly competitive. It's a world of flavours and favours, your star can shine brightly and then it can go out. I'm very practical about those things." Webster's influence, no doubt.

'The White Devil' opens on Friday at the Swan Theatre, Stratford. Booking: 01789 295623