Sunday, September 14, 2014

The White Devil

The problem with a satisfactory theatre trip is that it leaves you craving more. Yesterday was my third trip to Stratford's Swan theatre this year, each time to see plays from the roaring girls season, it possibly won't be the last. In my corner of England (by which I mean the middle) and for our trio of theatre going friends the RSC generally has the most to offer, and this season has been a cracker. 'The Roaring Girl' was particularly good - we came out of that fizzing with excitement and sharing an enthusiasm which hasn't abated even 6 months later. 'Arden of Faversham' was excellent as well, and 'The White Devil' - well apart from anything else it makes me wish I'd managed to catch 'The Duchess of Malfi' when BBC4 did there Webster season. What makes 'The a Roaring Girl' feel so unique and subversive is the character of Moll and the feeling in this production at least that she's more interested in freedom than sex. She remains desirable but aloof, not for her the scrambling after bed partners or the complications of love affairs that beset the other characters - what she does have is a lot of fun - it leads to uncomfortable questions about the roles we still enforce on women. In Arden of Faversham Alice is the discontented wife who's an advert for why divorce us a good thing. The only way she can be with her lover is to have her husband murdered, predictably it doesn't turn out well. Arden isn't a particularly nice man so it's quite possible to sympathise with Alice to a degree but her complicity in using her lovers sister, Susan, as bait in her husbands murder sort of puts paid to that. Susan is property and treated as such which is shocking.

'The White Devil' has one of those fairly incomprehensible revenge tragedy plots where everyone ends up dead at the end and which again makes you think divorce has to be a far better plan than wholesale murder. Duke Bracciano is having an affair with Vittoria who suggests to him that it might be quite handy if her husband and his wife were disposed of. Being Italian and in a revenge tragedy he immediately puts this in hand rather than sitting down with a nice cup of tea and having sensible second thoughts. The Duchess Isabella then turns up, gets treated abominably but still try's to make peace between her husband and brother. By way of thanks her husband has her poisoned, the poison administered through a portrait of himself that she's in the habit of kissing. Isabella's brother, Francisco vows revenge, Vittoria is put on trial for the murder of her husband which has been overseen by her sibling Flaminio who works for Duke Bracciano. Despite a spirited defence on her own part Cardinal, soon to be pope Monticelso has Vittoria sent to a house for penitent whores. After a jealous scene Bracciano flees with her to Padua, marries her, and us then poisoned by his ex brother in law. Flaminio kills their other sibling Marcello, which sends their mother mad, then forms a suicide pact with Vittoria and Zanche which turns out to be a trick. Just when it looks like the killing is done with Francisco's henchmen turn up and kill all 3 of them, and then they in turn are dispatched on the orders of the new duke, Isabella's young son, who ends the play by kicking the pile of bodies on stage and laughing.

This production takes a determinedly feminist stance on the play, using it to showcase how gender inequality and the sex industry damage society. Maria Aberg, the director, chose to recast the male Flaminio as a woman, which worked for us, though as we weren't familiar with the play beforehand it's hard to judge how much difference it makes. The setting is contemporary - which led the RSC to send out a warning email about the level of violence (it was nowhere near as violent or graphic as I expected in the end, the email felt unnecessary ) and effective. The play opens with Vittoria dressing on stage, transforming herself into an exotic object of desire in pink wig, gold mini dress, and heels - her sexuality is both how she gets what she wants but also how she's kept in her place. The home for penitent whores is full of beaten and discarded women which certainly underlines the double standards by which we measure male and female behaviour, but the fate of the good wife and mother Isabella is hardly encouraging either. Even Flaminio who steps outside the traditional roles of virgin or whore doesn't escape punishment (though as a violent killer that's probably a good thing).

On the whole it worked for me, the feminist message was preaching to the choir as far as I'm concerned but it was done well. We certainly came out with enough to think about to keep us going over the hours drive home. Changing Flaminio's gender served to demonstrate how complicit women can be in the exploitation of their own sex, or even their individual sexuality, but I think it also raised interesting questions about sibling relationships, and even more interesting questions about how gender blind the theatre could be.

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