In The White Devil, there’s a very glamorous brother and sister who are not as wealthy as they’d like to be or think they deserve to be. So the brother Flamineo (Aidan McArdle) plots a route to greater fortune by hopefully marrying his sister Vittoria, played by me, to his boss, the Duke of Bracciano (Darrell D\'Silva). But in order for this to happen, they have to commit murders. After the murders, the Duke and the sister run away together, but they have to face the consequences and then they’re subsequently murdered themselves.
It’s a really hard play: it is what it says it is, it is a white devil. We talked about this in rehearsals, and Jonathan Munby (the director) put it very well. He said, “every time I think I’ve got the characters, they trick me; I have to look at them again and they’ve shifted ground”. Webster’s very cunning. He’s given you characters without any depth. It’s very sparsely written, there’s no flesh on the bones at all, so things are left to interpretation. A character who can be essentially good or a victim of circumstance is actually very wicked in some other way. Or a character who appears to be wicked and a perpetrator of violence can suddenly have good qualities.
For instance, Vittoria genuinely is devastated when the Duke dies. And, in the trial scene, Vittoria has in essence done the things of which she’s been accused, but she manages to transcend that and get the audience totally behind her, as if she’s fighting a just fight. Courage without morality, someone once said of Vittoria – which is shocking because we’re so used to our courageous heroes being moral as well.
It’s a very bleak presentation of cold people in a cold world. Shakespeare has much more compassion, more humanity. He shows people who kind of know themselves but still act poorly. If you think of Macbeth, he knows at every step he shouldn’t do what he’s doing but he still does it. Whereas these characters in The White Devil don’t have that knowledge or if there’s a very fleeting moment when they do, they dismiss it as quickly as they can.
It’s very admirable that the Menier Chocolate Factory is doing this play. Apparently one of the reviews said it’s like the RSC in exile here. I thought that was really flattering. It’s a big, luscious production (with 12 in the cast) and very bloody. We all get covered in blood by the end so everything has to be washed after every performance. At somewhere like the RSC, they have basements dedicated to washing and drying costumes and getting them all ready again. Here, there are two washing machines and the stage manager has to put on two loads before she goes home. The first time we did a matinee, they hadn’t factored in the washing time, so she had to run around and get doubles of everything before the evening performance.
To stage something so epic in such a small space is a fantastic commitment. It’s a massive undertaking.
- Claire Price was speaking to Terri Paddock
The White Devil continues its limited season at the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark until 15 November 2008.