The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.0093 Tuesday, 16 January 2001
From: Richard Burt <
Date: Monday, 15 Jan 2001 15:05:05 -0500
Subject: Webster's White Devil Review
This is a positive review (the second) of The White Devil now playing at
I met up yesterday afternoon with Jean Howard to see it. By a fluke,
Steve Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff were also there, as were Phyllis
Rackin, Tom Cartelli, and Jackie Miller.
I thought it was well worth it--get orchestra seating.
January 15, 2001
'The White Devil': Going for the Gold in an Olympics of Evil
By BEN BRANTLEY
As stylish modes of murder go, you must admit that it's hard to top a
poisoned portrait. This method of assassination, in which a woman kisses
a painting of her beloved and falls dead, is what most people who have
read "The White Devil," John Webster's extra-gory revenge tragedy, seem
to remember from it. It's "the play with the poisoned portrait," the way
Webster's other best-known work, "The Duchess of Malfi," is "the play
with the severed hand."
Although some scholars argue that Webster's blank verse rivals
Shakespeare's, it's those whimsical touches of bloodiness that stick to
the memory, retrospectively conferring on the dramatist the mantle of a
Jacobean Wes Craven. So it should probably come as no surprise that the
Sydney Theater Company's crowd-courting production of "The White Devil,"
currently visiting the Brooklyn Academy of Music, trades heavily on the
image of that death-dealing portrait.
It looms, huge and logolike, in full view of the audience entering the
Howard Gilman Opera House, where the production runs through Saturday.
The picture is at least 10 feet tall, and it represents the head of a
surly young man with the "I'm gonna hurt you, and you're gonna love it"
gaze of a rough but oily rock star. It is perfectly understandable if
you at first mistake the picture for a billboard of an Interview cover.
Thus is the tone set for a "White Devil" in which everything - emotions,
gestures, line readings and of course scenes of sex and violence - comes
in extra large. The production was part of the Olympics Arts Festival in
Sydney last year and has corresponding qualities of ceremonial
stateliness and heavy-breathing athleticism, as though the characters
were going for the gold in their own Olympics of Evil.
What the show doesn't have is an ounce of psychological credibility. And
unless you can identify Webster's unscrupulous, ambitious ghouls as real
people, with plenty of latter-day counterparts, their gleeful bashing
and dispatching of one another starts to seem like a very long episode
of "The Itchy and Scratchy Show," the ultimate in mayhem cartoons,
watched by children on "The Simpsons."
"The White Devil" has been staged by Gale Edwards, the director who
recently gave us both an excitingly energetic version of Schiller's "Don
Carlos" for the Royal Shakespeare Company, seen at the Brooklyn Academy
last spring, and an annoyingly garish "Jesus Christ Superstar" on
Broadway. Her current offering falls loudly between the two. To her
credit, Ms. Edwards has swept away any obscuring period remoteness. Her
interpretation is clear to a fault, with actors who illustrate their
words, especially the lewder bits, with the annotative gestures of a
dumb show. The pace is fast and brusque.
Unfortunately, the production also manages to sweep away any layers of
characterization. There is a reason that the devil of the play's title
is white. It's the same idea as a whited sepulcher. Veils of propriety
and hypocrisy are worn by Webster's vicious aristocrats, who inhabit an
Englishman's idea of a corrupt Italian Renaissance court, when the dress
code requires it.
Not, however, in Ms. Edwards's version, where everyone is so baldly
cruel and lustful that all that duplicity seems merely pro forma. When
the play's adulterous heroine stands trial here for the murder of her
husband, she doesn't even pretend to be virtuous. Instead, she delivers
her proclamations of innocence as if she were saying: "Nyah, nyah, nyah!
You can't get me!"
This arrogant taunter is Vittoria Corombona (played by Angie Milliken),
and like the comparatively virtuous title character of "The Duchess of
Malfi," she is the pivot of a plot that has more corkscrew twists than a
bowl of fusilli.
Here's the movie-pitch pr