Earlier this year the National Theatre staged Blurred Lines, a piece that examined the insidious nature of contemporary sexism and misogyny. Director Maria Aberg explores similar territory with her febrile new staging of The White Devil, part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Roaring Girls season. Gone are the flickering candles and shadowy corners we associate with John Webster’s 17th-century revenge tragedy; instead we are in a brash, pulsating, neon-lit fantasy version of today’s celebrity culture. Here, four centuries on, sex and scandal still sell; women may trade on their “erotic capital”, singers may release tantalising videos, but overstep the mark and they will still find themselves the object of ugly sexist criticism. It’s a bold approach that yields a cool, sharp, fresh production, though it doesn’t entirely work because the social stratifications in Webster’s play, which depicts decadence, corruption and misogyny in Italian high society, don’t quite mesh with the setting.
What does emerge brilliantly is the importance of role-play in the drama. Aberg begins the story by having Vittoria, a sensual, frustrated married woman whose adulterous relationship with the Duke of Bracciano (David Sturzaker) produces a chain of murder, step on to the stage in her underwear. She surveys the audience coolly, before slipping into a party outfit of luxurious blonde wig and tight, glittering sheath dress. Kirsty Bushell is excellent in the role: her Vittoria is a witty, clever woman who gradually realises that trying to play the game brings her only heartache. Her path is complemented by Aberg’s recasting of her sibling, the cruel, Iago-like Flaminio (usually Flamineo), as a woman. Flaminio’s enthusiastic pimping of Vittoria thus becomes peculiarly disturbing, with the sinuous, androgynous Laura Elphinstone determinedly trying to exploit the system.
Webster’s acid portrayal of men in authority holds up, with Simon Scardifield in particular a coldly scheming agent of revenge as Bracciano’s brother-in-law. Meanwhile a screened-off viewing box, in which people are dispatched with imaginative relish, fuses the Jacobean taste for gore with our own voyeuristic times. But what sits less well is the detail of the context: the rigorous, practical constraints on women, the dominance of the Catholic church and the complex power structure. There are differences between our society – steeped in sexual imagery yet still censorious – and Webster’s, and while the friction drives this staging it also strains it and some roles struggle to find a place. Even so, this restless staging demands an engagement with Webster’s critique of a hypocritical and sexist society.