The White Devil review: A devilishly funny tragedy ★★★

John Webster's satire is played for laughs at the Globe's indoor candlelit theatre

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Earlier this year, Annie Ryan was awarded the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award for her last directorial outing A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing. With her latest play trailed as “the dark spaces between reality and nightmares” with “shadowy turns” and “monstrous murders”, you’d imagine the human rights group is more likely to intervene this time, rather than dish out accolades. 

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As with author John Webster’s other well known tragedy, The Duchess Of Malfi, the story of The White Devil is loosely drawn from the scandalous skullduggery of the Italian nobility in the late sixteenth century. In the throes of an illicit lust for Vittoria, the married daughter of another noble Venetian family, the Duke of Brachiano plots the murder of both his wife and his mistress’s husband.

Suffice to say, events don’t pan out fortuitously for the rest of the cast of the Renaissance court. Wives murder husbands. Brothers poison philanderers. Women are imprisoned as penitent whores. There’s more amoral behaviour than your average year in Albert Square and keeping up with the plots and subplots can prove harder than trying to work out who killed Lucy Beale. 

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Kate Stanley-Brennan as Vittoria (photos by Marc Brenner)

Kate Stanley-Brennan provides the standout performance as Vittoria, the eponymous mistress to the Duke. As fiery and impassioned as those around her, she expresses it in a more contained and controlled manner. Her performance is all the more captivating in contrast to more expansive and slightly over-the-top turns elsewhere. 

However, Ryan’s dystopian take on the Jacobean tragedy never manages to capture the darkness and cruelty at the heart of the play’s vengeful deceit. The burnt umber and flickering shadows of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s intimate candlelit auditorium should be the perfect setting, but too often the menace lurches into mirth. Acts of murderous violence are played for laughs, such as when the titular character’s cuckolded husband is thrown from a balcony following a tussle bordering on slapstick. The characterisations are so wildly gesticulative they feel closer to parody.

Ryan’s background is in physical theatre, which is very much in evidence in the staging. But it seems an ill-fit for this style of play. More oft that not the audience was drawn to laughter rather than horror. 

The White Devil is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 16 April


Book tickets for The Globe from the Radio Times Box Office


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