Skip to main content

The White Devil - National Theatre 1969

the director

'Throughout the play there is talk of th[e] difference between show and content. There is a scepticism about position, worldly glory, and people's outward behaviour that we recognise and feel deeply.

To advance oneself or maintain position no action seems too devious or cruel. Most of Webster's characters see nothing to work for other than this immediate gain. They have little thought of the infinite - like insects with one day of life in the hot sun.

At times a play with great sweep, The White Devil is also a "chamber" play of great intimacy and the subtle convolutions of the language and plot are well worth tiptoe attention.

Webster was clearly an innovator in his construction which, whilst often seeming chaotic, has a baroque planning. He is a man fascinated by death and by the problem of how to live. To further his purpose Webster was notable for "artistic greediness [and] unwillingness to accept any limitations and abide by them." Webster may be obsessed with the despair of living, but the grandeur of the defiance of his characters for the horror of the world and the means he uses to express it are a joy.'

Frank Dunlop - Programme notes

The critics

'a hellish kind of place where the endless skulduggery, violence, luxuries and lusts of John Webster's diseased imagination might conceivably have happened.

[A] good deal of credit was owing to the work on Piero Gherardi, Fellini's designer. He set the play in a blaze of light and against moving granite blocks which might have been stolen from Stonehenge. He dressed the actors in costumes as bizarre as any seen outside a Fellini film.

Marc Wilkinson's scratchy, tremolo music added to this nightmare of a Jacobean tragedy, one taken by its author to the limits of exaggeration.

Dominating the whirlwind from the moment of her long solo first walk across the stage is Virginia McEwan as Vittoria, her frail body and naked back enveloped by a cobra-hood, her face evil with the mixed satiety and appetite, leer and snigger, coquetry and indecency, of the consummate whore. Under a huge wig of ginger candy-floss, her pretty vicious little head fascinates, while her always-odd voice, twanging like a false 'cello, uses words like whips and sentences like scorpions. Towards the end of the play, dressed now as a corrupt Peter Pan in thigh-high white boots and transparent lace, Miss McEwan dies chained to a rock, expiring with a death-rattle of the whole body, as if life were loth to leave a creature so rapacious. This was a performance of bewildering power. [...]

Over-dressed, over decorated, over-ripe, overdone as it all was and had to be, the over-acting was kept remarkably in control. The National Theatre seems to have cracked one of the most difficult nuts in the dramatic repertory.'

John Barber, 'Triumph for designer in Jacobean tragedy', The Daily Telegraph, 14 November 1969

'What sex is to us, death was to the Jacobeans. Of all the dramatists of this period, Webster was the supreme pornographer. [...] He fairly drools over it, as he records lovingly each spasm and each intoxicating drop of blood. It ends in an orgy. Flamineo, Vittoria, and her Moorish servant are strapped to the wall and slowly, protractedly, disembowelled. It is an erotic consummation for the killed as well as for the killers: an orgasmic union that leaves three exhausted and three dead. The subsequent apprehension of the murderers is a formality: their inevitable execution is implied, not shown.

It is the virtue of Frank Dunlop's immensely stylish production that he brings this perverted sensuality into the open: physically into the open, too, for his Italian designer, Piero Gherardi, has devised a monumental façade of huge, sunbaked boulders, with the characters crawling, insect like, from the crevices.

It may not be everybody's cup of poison, but it is a potent brew.'

Frank Marcus, The Sunday Telegraph, 16 November 1969

'Between the cracks in a rustication of colossal stone two murderers slip like cockroaches, plot, fondle and scuttle off. The giant blocks, each a potential Michelangelo, grind apart like enormous molars, revealing a stone gallery along which issue more fantastic insects. There is a duke in ashen lace, like a bone-white moth; a courtesan with Titian hair towering above the blue-grin wings of a vast ruff; a pander, her brother, flitting between them like a poisonous yellow butterfly. Behind them crawls out of the stonework of Rome a pageant of flamboyant corruption: the ornate hats, painted eyes and peeping nakedness of the Roman sweet life.

It must have seemed a brilliant idea to commission the designer of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and "8 1/2", Piero Gherardi, to mount the National Theatre's new production of Webster's The White Devil. [...]

Gherardi's designs are striking, original, brazenly theatrical. [...] Spectacle has overwhelmed Webster's play. Set and costumes have usurped the actors' task of comment and interpretation. They dictate movement, style, the very tone of the lines.'

Ronald Bryden, 'Swamped by opulence', The Observer, 16 November 1969

Reviews:

John Barber, 'Triumph for designer in Jacobean tragedy', The Daily Telegraph, 14 November 1969

Irving Wardle, 'No terror, no pity and no mortality ', The Times , 14 November 1969

Jack Sutherland, 'Corrupt and brutal society', The Morning Star, 15 November 1969

Ronald Bryden, 'Swamped by opulence', The Observer, 16 November 1969

Harold Hobson, The Sunday Times, 16 November 1969

Frank Marcus, 'Dark deeds in high places', The Sunday Telegraph, 16 November 1969

Felix Barker, 'If you like your murder rare ... and well done', The Evening News, November 1969

Philip Hope-Wallace, 'A classic and a musical', The Guardian, November 1969

Herbert Kretzmer, 'Born 1612 -- and still worth a welcome', The Daily Express, November 1969

B. A. Young, Review, The Financial Times, November 1969

Irving Wardle, 'Coping with the Jacobeans ', The Times , 6 December 1969 

Helen Dawson, Plays and Players, January 1970, 38

Frank Dunlop, Plays and Players, January 1970, 52-3