Anyone who thought the poisonous paint plot in “Dynasty” was a (brush)stroke of outrageous originality clearly didn’t know their Jacobean tragedy. John Webster’s 1612 gore-fest “The White Devil” is driven by seven bloody and increasingly bizarre deaths, not the least Bracciano dispatching his duchess by adding toxic paint to his portrait, knowing she will kiss it. The fact that such an outlandish murder makes dramatic sense is a tribute to the strength of director Jonathan Munby’s theatrical grip.
The play’s action begins immediately with the banishment of Count Lodovico (Dylan Charles) and his ominous threat, “I’ll make Italian cut-works in their guts/If ever I return.” He’s referring to Bracciano (Darrell D’Silva) and Vittoria (Claire Price), whose soon-to-be-consummated, illicit lust is the plot’s centrifugal force.
The fact that both Bracciano and Vittoria are married to others is a problem soon swept aside by Vittoria’s unscrupulous brother Flamineo (dangerously chilly Aidan McArdle), who, in search of personal advancement from the powerful Bracciano, murders the inconvenient spouses.
Jealousy, fury and multiple revenges ensue, corrupting everyone up to and including the new pope, formerly Cardinal Monticelso, beadily played by Christopher Godwin, whose lush vestments disguise vested interests.
Webster’s ripe use of poetic language lifts this internecine plotting from a wallow in a bloodbath into the realm of tragedy. The most distinctive quality of this modern-dress production is the uncommon, almost vicious clarity of its verse-speaking: Intention at every moment is never in doubt.
Philip Whitcomb’s traverse setting of a runway-like stage with audiences seated along the sides vitally emphasizes the fast-moving nature of the action as actors enter through doors at either end and are immediately thrust into an unusually dynamic relation to other characters. Their confrontations are further heated by Hartley T.A. Kemp’s hard, visible light beams.
The strongest confrontation takes place at Vittoria’s trial for her husband’s murder, the play’s most famous scene. Price’s rooted, impassioned self-defense has a shimmering power that convinces audiences — if not the authorities — of her (relative) innocence.
Yet although Price’s admirably forthright zeal allows us to see the purity her lover Bracciano craves, it precludes us from seeing the other side of a woman who, at the very least, is implicated not only in lustful acts but in her husband’s murder.
As the fatal consequences of the lovers’ actions pile up, Munby keeps his foot on the accelerator. The urgency of the plot is never compromised because with almost no furniture on stage, scenes fold expertly into one another with no pause for scene-changes or, indeed, breath.
D’Silva’s initially louche, swaggering Bracciano grows ever more penetrating as jealousy consumes him. He’s matched by a bracingly unsentimental duchess performed by a gravely powerful Claire Cox, who reappears as her own ghost to shivering effect.
What Munby cannot do is save the play itself. In common with Webster’s more celebrated “The Duchess of Malfi,” it climaxes too early and, as the body count rises, grows too diffuse. But if the tragedy itself ultimately lacks resonance, Munby’s production marks a return to form for the Menier Chocolate Factory after recent misfires.