Men are mere beasts, and women are something worse in the lurid world of John Webster, the Jacobean writer whose two major plays, “The White Devil” and “The Duchess of Malfi,” include more violent acts of betrayal and retribution than a whole season of “The Sopranos.” The continuing popularity of the Italian gangster genre taps into the same relish for shamelessly bad behavior that Webster so colorfully exploited, and Philip Franks’ new production of “The White Devil” smoothly makes the connection by bringing the play into 1960s Rome. The scheming Flamineo, the debauched Duke Bracciano and the vengeful Lodovico plan their murderous acts in sleek black suits, a familiar sight these days. Even the nasty Cardinal Monticelso sports a crisply cut jacket over his priestly garb.
Webster’s circus of horrors plot is set in motion by the wily Flamineo (Sebastian Harcombe), who hustles his sister Vittoria (Zoe Waites) into the bed of the powerful and prosperous Bracciano (David Rintoul) in the hopes of profiting by their adulterous liaison. To further facilitate their union, he helps bump off Bracciano’s good wife and Vittoria’s hapless husband (the murders are shown on film, accompanied by Pino Donaggio-esque music).
But the murdered spouses have their own partisans in the persons of Lodovico (Shaun Dooley), an admirer of the doomed duchess; her brother Francisco de Medici (of those Medicis); and a conveniently corruptible cardinal, Monticelso (Anthony Valentine), who arranges a monkey trial for Vittoria in one of the first act’s most deliciously unpleasant scenes, in which the word “whore” recurs with almost comical frequency. And so murder begets murder, betrayal betrayal, and by the final scene the raised white stage on which most of the play’s bad behavior is plotted and executed is literally awash in blood.
For theatergoers more accustomed to the relatively refined sounds of Shakespeare’s words, Webster’s language can be shocking, but it has a distinctive, almost visceral allure. The Bard was certainly not prudish, but even his most unpleasant characters are no match for the noxious versifiers of Webster, who seem to be transported by the sounds of their own vituperation into greater ecstasies of hate. The majority of the cast attacks the gory flavor of the words with apt relish.
Harcombe’s Flamineo is a cool and cruel manipulator who dredges up a few wisps of conscience in the final acts (after he’s calmly dispatched his own brother, mind you). He is the most active character in the play — most of the others’ devilish deeds are reactive –and the most thoughtful, too, and Harcombe’s well-judged performance makes him the disturbingly charismatic eye of this storm of violence. The corrupting power of Bracciano’s physical appetites are well rendered by Rintoul, who seethes mightily as needed. As Cardinal Monticelso, Valentine has authority and an ice-cold charm, while Timothy Walker’s Francisco becomes nearly unhinged in his thirst for vengeance. Overall, the women fare less well, although Vittoria’s sardonic contempt for the Cardinal and his court in the trial scene is justly done by Waites.
Franks’ staging is clear and economical, although the axing of the play’s first scene makes for a dramatically abrupt opening. From time to time the performers slide from unrestrained but effective ferociousness into something manifestly overdone — but you can’t really blame them: the language takes them there.