Review of The White Devil, the Haymarket Theatre
Sheffield Hallam University
Connolly, Annaliese. "Review of The White Devil, the Haymarket Theatre." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999): 12.1-6 URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-2/connrev.htm.
THE WHITE DEVIL. Presented by THE HAYMARKET THEATRE, Leicester, England. 9 April - 1 May, 1999. Directed by Paul Kerryson. Designed by Emma Donovan. Lighting Design by Jenny Cane. Sound by Sarah Yeardley. Fights by Renny Krupinski. With Alan Perrin (Lodovico), Gary Pillai (Gasparo), Sebastian Dunn (Antonelli & Marcello), Gabrielle Drake (Vittoria), Ian Pepperell (Flamineo), Martin Parr (Camillo), Devon Scott (Cornelia), Syreeta Kumar (Zanche), Richard Willis (Brachiano), Tracy Sweetinburgh (Isabella), Samuel Jenkins/Adam Master (Giovanni), David Leonard (Cardinal Monticelso), Claude Close (Francisco, Duke of Florence), Matt Fell, Alice Gould, Ryan Green, Saira Master, James Plumb & Stephen Webb (Altar Servers).
Paul Kerryson's production of The White Devil is keen to suggest the play's contemporary relevance, as can be seen initially from the programme notes. The first is a montage of sensational headlines from Italian society and politics from the 1970s to the present day, including the 1978 murder of President Moro and the 1998 murder trial of Patrizia Reggiani, nicknamed the "Black Widow," who paid a hitman to murder her husband. These stories suggest contemporary parallels with events within the play, in which the affair of Brachiano and Vittoria acts as a backdrop for a closer examination of those characters and institutions that seek to condemn the lovers, with the play keen to expose the hypocrisy of the Church. In presenting these headlines the production helps to create an updated version of the play's vision of Italy as a fantastic otherworld, and appears to confirm our received ideas of what 'typical' Italians are like -- i.e. violent, passionate and corrupt. In another note entitled "Fashion, Beauty, Squalor and Tragedy," this idea of Italy as a place of extremes is reinforced by a series of binarisms, with the Mafia, Mussolini, and the Borgias on one side, and Michaelangelo, Versace, and da Vinci on the other; the note describes Italy's positive and negative contributions to history and culture through these famous figures.
Starting from the emphasis on the contemporary in the programme, Kerryson continues to draw upon our knowledge of cultural systems and icons in the opening scene of the play: a tableau, with Brachiano, his wife, and his son gathered as if for a family photograph on the steps of a church. This scene is reminiscent of the style used by Coppola in his Godfather trilogy, in which the Corleone family is frequently presented together at various church ceremonies which presage significant acts of violence or destruction. In The White Devil the scene heralds the disintegration of the family unit. The costumes also acknowledge Coppola's representation of the definitive gangster, and consist of sharp suits and slick hair for the men, and shift dresses, suits, and sunglasses, suggestive of Jackie Onassis, for the women. The similarity in dress for Vittoria, Isabella, and Zanche, who are supposedly very different, is used to emphasise that these women cannot be categorised using the labels employed by the male characters; costume in this case is used as a marker of similarity rather than difference. This mirroring technique is used to good effect in the presentation of Zanche, Vittoria's Moorish maidservant (played by Syreeta Kumar) and Isabella (played by Tracy Sweetinburgh). The two actresses, besides being dressed similarly, actually looked alike, with black hair, dark skin and almost identical build; at the beginning of the play it was difficult to be sure which was Zanche and which Isabella. Isabella is particularly interesting, as she appears to be a pawn like Octavia in Antony and Cleopatra, and Tracy Sweetinburgh's Isabella is vicious yet regal in her indignation in Act II, scene i, when she pretends to be the jealous wife, with lines echoing Cleopatra's response to the messenger who brings news of Antony's marriage: "O that I were a man, or that I had power / To execute my apprehended wishes / I would whip some with scorpions." (II.i.243-5) The decision to cast both Isabella and Zanche with dark skin serves to highlight the blurring of boundaries between white and black, good and evil, as both women are guilty of their own brands of deception. This idea is further developed through the presentation of Francisco, who, when in disguise as Mulinassar the Moor, appeared as a terrorist in black robes and dark glasses. This disguise as "brave" Mulinassar recalls the other famous Moor, Othello, and continues to disrupt the meanings attached to visual markers such as race. In Othello, the idea of the treacherous Moor versus the noble white man is inverted, subverting the stereotype. Webster presents us with a white man who uses his disguise as a Moorish warrior to enable him to get close to the man he is planning to murder. The play's connections with Othello are further developed by the production's presentation of Flamineo (played by Ian Pepperell). Like Iago, Flamineo is a seductive Machiavelli who has been denied the promotion and status he appears to crave; the parallels between Iago and Flamineo are most noticeable in their relationships with their victims. The homoerotic undertones that recent versions of Othello have often found in Iago's relationship with Cassio are reflected in the dumb show of Act II, when Flamineo and Camillo drink together on a vaulting horse and exchange a kiss before Flamineo murders Camillo.
In the trial scene, the idea of costume or appearance as an external marker of morality is dismantled through the interaction of Gabrielle Drake's Vittoria and David Leonard's Cardinal Monticelso. Vittoria is presented in a red fitted suit to assert her role visually as the scarlet woman, and apparently to support the misogynistic observations made about her, whilst Monticelso is equally striking in his purple robes which, interestingly, should have been red in accordance with his position as Cardinal -- thus undermining the image of Vittoria as the scarlet woman, with the emphasis upon likeness rather than contrast. Despite this change, the scene, instead of confirming Vittoria's guilt, shifts the focus from the accused to the accuser in other ways, as Vittoria complains: "Honourable my lord, / It doth not suit a reverend cardinal / To play the lawyer thus." (III.ii.59-61) In Act IV, scene iii, when Monticelso is elected Pope, he is presented in white robes to give communion and benediction, complete with monstrance, to an adoring congregation; his appearance in these vestments appears to suggest that he, rather than Vittoria, is the White Devil of the title. Later he condemns the revenge he had previously advocated and is absent when justice is administered at the end of the play. This absence emphasises the feeling that the power of his position is such that he can act with impunity.
The production uses religious iconography to form part of the play's ironic commentary, as can be seen before the performance begins, with the silhouette of three large crosses shining above the stage. By the interval, the crosses have become inverted, a sign traditionally associated with the devil, indicating that in the world of the play the familiar framework of signs and symbols has been corrupted. At the start of the second half three large pictures of the Virgin Mary are hung above the stage, bringing into focus what is regarded particularly by the male characters of the play as the image of the ideal woman, in stark contrast with those that surround them. When I interviewed him, Kerryson remarked that he had attempted to get the image of Mary to resemble Gabrielle Drake, who plays Vittoria, in order to raise questions about the way in which women are perceived within the play as either virgin or whore. These images help to destabilise this viewpoint, as this female icon now embodies both sets of characteristics.
The poisoned picture of Brachiano did not continue the theme of religious symbolism, but instead recalled the media headlines of the programme; it was presented as a huge billboard suspended from the ceiling, with a grainy black and white photograph, as though it had been reproduced from a newspaper. In this way, Brachiano's picture, instead of being a devotional image, becomes an icon for infamy and murder, like his modern parallels in the programme notes.
- When other productions of Jacobean revenge tragedy are updated to the twentieth century and given Mafioso overtones, critics often complain that this particular stylistic emphasis reduces them from revenge tragedy, with its supernatural elements and psychological ramifications, to merely domestic tragedy. In answer to such criticism, this production of The White Devil (which is not concerned primarily with a tragic hero like Hamlet, for example) was thought-provoking and innovative in its combination of props and lighting, using the gangster motif and religious paraphernalia successfully to suggest the symbiotic relationship of the Church and the underworld -- the survivors at the end of the play.
- Webster, John. The White Devil. Ed. John Russell Brown. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1960.
Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.
© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).