The White Devil has one of the most complex plots I’ve ever seen in a play. A lot happens, and there’s so much going on it would be impossible to put it on without substantial edits. This production does just that, but it doesn’t entirely pull it off. The ideal amount of cutting would remove the most tangled of Webster’s language and reduce a couple of plot details without simplifying the complex ideas towards duplicity, corruption, power and death in the play. Sadly absolutely none of these are present in Annie Ryan’s production. There’s nothing intense, and none of the anxieties present in the text make it in to the tone of the piece.
Emma Rice’s Wonder Noir season is meant to be a subversion of the cheerful and raucous summer season. It’s meant to be ‘a winter full of sexiness, soulfulness and magic’. This play has some of this content-wise, but not tone-wise. There are things that characters say that don’t actually match up to what they’re doing onstage. Everything loses meaning. I’m open to lots of different dramatic forms and aesthetics but when you’re just saying the text it feels bland.
The truth is, in 2017, it isn’t good enough to just put the text onstage. This production doesn’t justify itself. It doesn’t answer the question: why put The White Devil on in 2017? It doesn’t even begin to ask it. Canonical texts have to answer this question, just like new writing does. Even the Globe has to ask the Why question. This production has no biting relevance to the corruption or duplicity of the world we live in today. It was at its best when least realistic and most metatheatrical (Flamineo ‘riseth’ after his fake death and the dumb shows) and at its worst when it put Webster’s convoluted plot above the meatiest and darkest undercurrents. The dumb shows are the most electric couple of minutes in the whole play – Ryan’s choice to shorten them leaves the play feeling slightly bland.
The best directors can sift through a play like Webster’s and pin down the meaning behind each line. What is this character actually saying here? What are they trying to achieve? What is Webster trying to achieve? Ryan’s cuts haven’t pared the play down to its root at all. There’s no sense of what lies beneath. In a play where every character has an ulterior motive, there’s very little sense that the actors actually know what their motive is.
The cuts remove some of the stunning moments Webster engineers, some striking images he creates: Isabella kissing Brachiano’s poisoned portrait is one that gets scrapped. In a way, cutting in defence of the plot is a silly idea, because the plot is almost the weakest part of Webster’s play. The play is at its best when it nails Webster’s metatheatrical comedy. But it never quite manages to pin the black comedy down: ‘play at football with his head’ is the only laugh they get.
There’s a difference between a play with characters who say or do misogynistic things, and a play that is misogynistic in itself. Sometimes when people see sexist/racist/ableist content voiced in a play, they take it as indicative of the entire play. The White Devil is not a sexist play. The women in it might be suppressed but they are also the ‘diamonds’ that ‘spread their richest light’ through the ‘darkness’ inhabited by male characters. Ryan’s system for cutting sexist opinions expressed by male characters seem to be that if there is a female character onstage who contradicts the male who expresses said sexist opinion, it doesn’t get scissored. This coarse editing of the text means that we lose Isabella’s brother summoning her voiceless, passive ghost, directed around the stage and reduced to a being of his imagination. We miss out on the sorrow and the heartlessness of Isabella’s treatment at the hands of men. We only see her playing assertive then dying (pretty early on). Ryan’s cuts take her voice away more than Francisco summoning her voiceless ghost, unable to express her emotion, does. The only way she can contradict her husband is by repeating his words. But Ryan retains Monticelso’s diatribe on ‘whores’, because Vittoria can claim ‘This character scapes me’ at the end of his speech. The only stand this production takes, the only interpretation it makes, is to offer the audience half a story, 50% of a concept that is so fully fleshed out in Webster’s play. There’s no subtlety, no opportunity for us to make up our own minds. But apparently you can’t be feminist without cutting women’s lines.
What’s sad about this production is that it could take risks and be so much more daring. Like the use of cosmetics in the gif below. But it chooses not to.