The shock of the noir

The White Devil | Lyric Hammersmith, London
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The Independent Culture

Poetry flows like blood through the betrayal and savagery of The White Devil, whose villains are as likely to stun us with a gorgeous phrase as with a dagger's thrust. Director Philip Franks has narrowed the gap between Webster's time and ours by setting the play in the post-war Rome of La Dolce Vita, among aristocrats who engage an assassin as coolly as they would ring up a manicurist.

Poetry flows like blood through the betrayal and savagery of The White Devil, whose villains are as likely to stun us with a gorgeous phrase as with a dagger's thrust. Director Philip Franks has narrowed the gap between Webster's time and ours by setting the play in the post-war Rome of La Dolce Vita, among aristocrats who engage an assassin as coolly as they would ring up a manicurist.

Rae Smith's outfits, for the men, of collarless black blur the distinction between gangster and cleric. A black turban and sunglasses flaunt one woman's haughty indifference; another, on trial for murder and adultery, makes a movie-star entrance in a white backless dress.

The obverse of this glamour is suggested by a pile of rubble and broken furniture, a scrap-heap of old structures and certainties that generates corruption. Reclining on black cushions, braced with a few whiffs of snow, Brachiano, Duke of Padua, enjoys two private snuff movies. As the dark and creaky film unreels, to Matthew Scott's softly sinister music, we see Brachiano's men enact a gruesome pantomime, poisoning his wife and strangling his lover's husband.

Despite the chilly languor of these villains, Franks sustains a taut atmosphere that does justice to both the play's violence and its beauty. As Brachiano, David Rintoul, who shouts too much, comes across as pompous rather than passionate, and Jane Bertish, as his wife, instead of wounded and embittered, seems merely mannered; but Zoë Waites's Vittoria, the spark that lights an explosion of lust and killing, is convincingly sexy, reckless, and spoilt (though in the trial scene, she works too hard at demonstrating these qualities rather than actually embodying them).

Even better are Sebastian Harcombe as Vittoria's brilliantined, rat-like brother Flamineo, and Anthony Valentine as the cardinal, her purring but deadly enemy. In the role of Vittoria's low-born mother, whom the murders have driven mad, Dilys Laye makes the most of the one moment when the play adds pity to terror. Running in demented circles, she begs Flamineo to "call for the robin redbreast and the wren" like a frightened child.

Best of all is Timothy Walker as Francisco, the velvet-voiced brother of Brachiano's murdered wife. (Since Francisco's last name is Medici, no prizes for guessing that, at the end of the play, he's the only one left standing). Quiet menace can be as monotonous as ranting, but Walker lightly caresses the verse as he outlines his scheme for vengeance, and then, still calmly, but devastatingly, snaps out his plan for Brachiano: to "play at football with thy head."

The elegant, powerful chiaroscuro of Franks's staging ends with the stage awash in a colour that, until then, has been seen only on Vittoria's fingernails. It's an explosion of emotional colour as well, with the character's passions as tangled as their bodies, locked and writhing in deadly embrace.

* To 28 Oct (020-8741 2311)

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