You'd be hard-pushed to find a more bloodthirsty tale of betrayal and savagery than The White Devil. This contemporary reworking of John Webster's revenge tragedy, which takes in strangling, garrotting, poisoning, stabbing and shooting, comes from Brighton's newest company, Inservice Productions, formed by five local actors with stints at the National and the RSC behind them.
From the start, the atmosphere is one of chilly austerity, exacerbated by designer Sean Cavanagh's dark and dingy tower of sliding walls and hidden doors. The director, David Oyelowo, has set the play among Italy's military top brass, underlining how duplicity and corruption afflicts the highest orders.
The most radical adjustment is to turn the two brothers at the heart of the plot, Flamineo and Marcello, into sisters Flaminea and Marcella. The result is to make Webster's drama as much a study of sibling rivalry as social one-upmanship, as Flaminea vies hopelessly with her sister for their mother's affections. The chain of treachery starts with Flaminea who, eager for advancement in the Duke's military ranks, engineers an affair between her second sister, Vittoria, and Brachiano, both of whom are already married. Their selfish passion leads, at their behest, to the deaths of their respective spouses. The avenging of these murders forms the rest of the drama.
Oyelowo sustains a tense atmosphere, for the most part doing justice to the play's brutality and lyricism. The real power lies in Webster's savage poetry, which pulses with its own psychosis. Priyanga Burford's Flaminea strikes an excellent balance of self-congratulation and anxiety, revelling in her manipulation while yearning for the final prize. Even better is Sophie Hunter as Vittoria who, in spite of her infidelity, manages to capture our sympathies during her trial for the murder of her husband in a speech of defiance against Christopher Ettridge's Cardinal Monticelso.
More measured defiance comes from Israel Aduramo's Francisco as he calmly delivers a devastating plan for his brother-in-law Brachiano "to play at football with thy head".
Virtue is scarce in Webster's play, a fact illustrated by the denouement, where only two are left standing. It's only in this final act, when the melodrama and bloodletting reach great heights of silliness, that Oyelowo's production falters. When the poisoned Brachiano pauses from his death throes to reflect on "how miserable it is to die among women howling", he is met with laughter.
This is an occupational hazard when it comes to Webster. As the body count rises, the mood moves inexorably from tragedy to comedy. There's nothing wrong with the odd giggle, of course, though you don't imagine this is the finale that Webster had in mind.
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