Like his better-known melodrama The Duchess of Malfi, John Webster’s The White Devil (1612) is a revenge tragedy full of gruesome violence, mordant humour and potent imagery. The action may seem sensational but the bare bones of the plot are based on a real-life murder story in late-sixteenth-century Italy, given a characteristically Websterian macabre twist. Here Jonathan Munby’s modern-dress, traverse staging gives a pacy, fluid and lucid account of this underrated play.
The main protagonists are Bracciano and Vittoria, whose passionate affair leads to murder and mayhem. After Vittoria’s brother Flamineo has helped them to kill off their respective spouses Isabella and Camillo in Rome, the criminal couple escape to Padua, where they marry. But they are pursued there in disguise by Isabella’s brother Francisco and Lodovico, who loved her, both hell-bent on revenge.
Unlike Melly Still’s recent design-led production of The Revenger’s Tragedy in the vast open Olivier theatre, there is a real feeling of claustrophobic intensity in the Menier’s intimate basement studio. With characters from one scene often still on stage when the next scene begins, everyone seems to be watching everyone else in these voyeuristic corrupt aristocratic courts where rumour spreads like venereal disease. Munby’s production evokes a decadent society in which even the Catholic Church is suspect, where sexual lust can turn all too easily into bloodlust.
The murders are horribly well done, with Isabella dying in torment after kissing the poisoned portrait of her husband, while Camillo’s neck is broken like a chicken’s, on a vaulting horse. In this bloody tale of adultery, deception, madness and the supernatural, as suggested by the title, evil lurks panting behind the mask of purity. With the innocent being snuffed out and the villains getting their comeuppance, there is a strong sense of how revenge destroys the avenger as well as the victim.
Darrell D\'Silva plays Bracciano with arrogant ruthlessness, Claire Price makes an unrepentantly feisty Vittoria and Aidan McArdle is insidiously self-advancing as the coke-snorting Flamineo. Claire Cox is the desperately unhappy Isabella who returns as a ghost to haunt her guilty husband and John Dougall gives a sleazy conceitedness to the whisky-drinking Camillo. Louis Hilyer infuses Francisco with avenging fury, while Dylan Charles is the saturnine, scar-faced Lodovico. Christopher Godwin’s distinctly dodgy cardinal/pope Monticelso is far from saintly, with the smell of incense scarcely disguising the stink of moral corruption in both church and state.