Shakespeare may have been the hotshot poet of his time, waxing lyrical through sonnets and plays, but his contemporary John Webster had his finger on the pulse.
The White Devil was one of his masterpieces – although, strangely, its bloody mix of sex and violence didn’t go down as well as The Bard’s Tempest, written in the same year.
It’s faring better with audiences at Stratford-upon-Avon in the RSC’s Swan Theatre where the bloodlust, delivered with relish, is being lapped up.
There’s a strong sadistic element with Webster but always accompanied by a wry smile.
He’s been described as the Quentin Tarantino of his day and it’s a good comparison. Both go totally over-the-top with the ketchup but the slaying is hand-in-hand with gallows humour.
Webster’s plays, controversially, have a strong leading woman (at a time when female actors were banned), weak men, and little respect of the female gender when it came to dishing out punishment.
The revenge tragedy is part of the RSC’s Roaring Girls season and is boldly directed by Maria Aberg who uses the story to expose mysogyny in the corridors of power.
It’s visceral, raw and pulsating and very sexy. Updated to modern times the men are louche and the women their playthings, meeting at a nightclub to perform their ritual courtships on the dance floor.
The White Devil has a splendid female protagonist in Vittoria Corombona, a party girl unashamedly having an affair with a married man.
She may dress like a sex object but she’s very much her own woman – which not only alienates her from the Italian Court but sets her at odds with the Catholic Church.
Vittoria’s lover, the Duke Bracciano, plots to dispatch both spouses so the couple can be together but it is his sexy mistress who is blamed for the deaths and is suitably punished.
No-one leaves the stage with a noble death. There is an awful lot of blood spilled, a quite unsettling performance from the company’s youngest cast member – Teddy Jack Challis – as Bracciano’s son Giovanni, and plotting and counter-plotting by just about everyone.
The ever reliable David Rintoul gives a suitably menacing turn as a scheming cardinal while Kirsty Bushell as Vittoria and Laura Elphinstone as her sister Flaminio (in a gender swap from the original) are outstanding in the leads.
It’s refreshing to see women boldly go forward in Jacobean drama. Shakespeare’s women are of their time – weak, subserviant playthings at the will of their menfolk.
Webster’s intelligent Vittoria is feisty, independent, and calculating with a wicked sense of humour.
I particularly like the way she interact’s with the audience, at times including us in her jokes and witty asides.
It’s a thrilling and fast-paced play which works well in modern dress (or undress in Vittoria’s case).