Dark, gory, deliciously authentic 'White Devil' at Shakespeare's Globe

John Webster's "The White Devil" at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare's Globe in London.

LONDON — Remember that scene in Shakespeare in Love when the young Will comes upon a filthy street urchin playing with rats? When he asks him his name, the boy replies, "John Webster."  John Webster would grow up to write the goriest and most shocking Jacobean revenge tragedies; most famous are The Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil.  The latter is rarely performed — I’ve never seen it before this production at the Globe in London — so I am amazed to tell you that PAC (Philadelphia Artists’ Collective) will be presenting a production of the play in May.

The plot is wild and confusing, full of impassioned speeches. Many subplots twist and turn, all winding up with blood on the floor and wall-to-wall corpses: poisonings, stabbings, shootings, hangings, and one poor guy who is flung off a balcony. Greed and lust vie with each other as motives, that is, when there are motives. The mayhem ends with one man murdering his brother for no reason whatsoever.  There is no loyalty: Wives plot against husbands, husbands betray wives, servants are up for grabs, and once the Cardinal becomes the Pope, the Church becomes another vile element in the relentless scheming.

Revenge — from the ancient Greeks to Los Angeles gangs — seems to be a driving and ineradicable force in human life. Thus the need for Commandments and criminal laws.  But when religion and government are as corrupt and ruthless as those they would govern, the results are dire. And that’s much of what The White Devil is about.

But it is also about the mistreatment of women, and seems, strikingly and surprisingly, to be a feminist protest play. “A rape! You have ravished Justice!” declares one of the many (!) Duchesses during her trial. Women — wives, mistresses, mothers, sisters — are mistreated violently and shamefully. The only defense is revenge: “If I were a man … ” 

The venue is the charming, intimate, Sam Wanamaker Theatre — the Globe’s recent addition, allowing winter productions, since the  main Globe theater is open to the sky.  The productions at the Sam Wanamaker are lit only by candles, creating lighting effects that add — literally  — to the darkness of the play’s vision.  The small stage is bare except for upstage doors, so the experience of seeing this 17th-century play feels absolutely authentic.