Devil with the Blue Dress, The Bunker, London, review: Monica Lewinsky meets #MeToo in this new play

A timely look at Bill Clinton's relationship with his intern, Kevin Armento's play puts the stories of five women centre stage – with the former president played by a saxophone 

'Devil With the Blue Dress' at The Bunker
'Devil With the Blue Dress' at The Bunker

Kevin Armento’s clever, fascinating play is nothing if not timely. It revisits Bill Clinton’s notorious relationship with his 22-year-old intern (which always gets dubbed, tendentiously, the “Monica Lewinsky Scandal”) in the light of the #MeToo movement and the pile-up of allegations against Trump.

This barbed, fluent production by Joshua McTaggart opens just a few weeks after Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair article in which she struggles with the issue of agency and victimhood, recognising that she does not easily fit the criteria for membership of the #MeToo crowd as her relationship with the president was “consensual”. But the power imbalance, as she reminds us, was huge – a point also persuasively made here.

There is an almost abstract quality to Armento’s play: a largely bare dais of a stage on which the perspectives of five women at the centre of the scandal clash. The untrustworthy slipperiness of the former president is brought out by the fact that he is serially impersonated by the women (including by Kristy Phillips, the actress playing his daughter, Chelsea). Otherwise, he is represented by a non-speaking saxophonist at the side of the stage.

This skilful abandonment of naturalism allows the play to undulate backwards and forwards in time, to pack in an enormous amount of information with supple speed, and to create a consciously theatrical space in which Hillary Clinton (Flora Montgomery) and Daniella Isaacs’ Lewinsky can confront each other and battle it out for power and position. There’s even a dispute over whose play this is.

The other characters are Betty Currie (Dawn Hope), Clinton’s loyal African American secretary, and middle-aged Republican Linda Tripp (Emma Hardy), the friend who secretly recorded hours of intimate conversation with Lewinsky which she handed to the authorities. Tripp encourages the girl to think of keeping the semen-stained article of clothing that gives the play its name as “just an insurance policy” against being called a liar. In fact, it become her downfall – proof that Clinton had had “sexual relations with that woman”, as he charmingly put it in denial, and the emblem of her (rather than his) shame.

The piece is too abrasive to be soft on anyone. It does not disguise how power was an aphrodisiac for Lewinsky nor tone down the dogged tenacity with which she pursued the affair. But the recontextualising sensitises you to the raw injustice of the way she was demonised and scapegoated in order to protect him.

Though too angular and sharp-featured, Flora Montgomery’s superb Hillary shows you a woman who has been so hardened by all the false things the family has been accused of, that she can’t see the true ones. The irony, not lost on Lewinsky, is that the scandal sent Hillary’s poll numbers soaring. She was the “right” wronged woman. “I birthed your political career,” the young woman tells her.

Montgomery vividly conveys the toughness that has come from one humiliation too many. Of course, her husband’s past continues to haunt this politician, as we saw when Donald Trump shamelessly turned up to their second presidential debate with the women who accuse Bill Clinton of harassment and sexual assault. It calculatedly drew the sting from Hillary’s remarks about the Access Hollywood tape.

It’s hard to know how, in the #MeToo era, the pair will continue to function as a political force. But that is possibly the subject of another play. Meanwhile, this powerful exercise in seeing thing stereoscopically is highly recommended.

Until 28 April (bunkertheatre.com)

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