The White Devil at Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

Judging from his two extant plays, the notorious Jacobean dramatist John Webster held a misanthropic world view. Lust elbows love out of the way, greed and treachery replace generosity and fidelity, and familial bonds dissolve into sibling betrayal and murder.

Less compelling than The Duchess of Malfi (a play in which the eponymous heroine becomes a truly pitiable figure), The White Devil similarly examines a family in disintegration, and an upper echelon of Roman society blinded by lethal ambition.

Webster s gore fest is like a proto-Big Brother: who will survive at the end? Rather than settling his story upon a principal character (although the Duchess in Malfi comes closest to fulfilling that role), the writer revolves his attention from one player to another, often marking the transitions with someone s death.

The ever-thickening plot is too diffuse to distil here. Suffice it to say that Duke Brachiano s (David Rintoul) adulterous affair with Vittoria (Zoë Waites) scandalises the court, with particular interest shown by the Duke of Florence (Timothy Walker), as well as the prime candidate to be the next pope, Monticelso (Anthony Valentine), and cuckolded spouses Isabella (Jane Bertish) and the hapless Camillo (Keith Osborn). Henchmen to carry out dirty deeds are a requisite in Webster, and in this play we have two: Flamineo (Sebastian Harcombe) and Lodovico (Shaun Dooley), the latter gaining the unique distinction of stabbing the more sinned against than sinning Vittoria in a most tender part of her body.

Rae Smith s design suggests an abandoned warehouse location, with the action lit by Howard Harrison; there s a striking use of an upstage row of candles for a scene within ‘a house for penitent whores . In addition, Matthew Scott s brooding music enhances the inherent menace, while director Philip Franks nicely utilises film to recount Camillo and Isabella s murders. Franks strikes some welcome comic notes, but in the main this is a grim, and long, evening.

Webster s language demands constant attention, since it acts as his primary characterisation tool. There s no why in his revenge tragedy, more a tableaux of what men (and women) do to hasten their destruction. The final blood bath is not only a touch wearying, it s faintly ridiculous. At curtain, I was relieved to escape this bloody universe.

Paul B Cohen