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Review: RSC's The White Devil, Swan Theatre

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David Sturzaker and Kirsty Bushell in RSC's The White Devil

Contemporary settings, modern beats, graphic murders and racy love scenes have become common features of RSC productions in recent years. And its great, giving the Shakespeare and Jacobean plays a vitality, freshness and youth that they probably had when they were first performed, before it all became a bit high-brow and any interference or irreverence was sacrilege.

The slight problem is that it has raised expectations and I think this might have tempered my enjoyment of The White Devil yesterday. It was good - slickly done and performed - but there was something missing. Discussing it on the train back to London with @polyg and @nick730 the consensus seemed to be that it lacked a certain flourish.

It does make the job of reviewing it slightly tricky. It is easier to write about what did and didn't work rather than trying to put your finger on what it didn't quite have.

The White Devil is a classic Webster revenge tragedy. An affair between Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell) and  Duke Bracciano (David Sturzaker) creates scandal among the nobility as both are married. Vittoria's husband Camillo (Keir Charles) is nephew to a powerful Cardinal and papal candidate. Bracciano's wife Isabella (Faye Castelow) is the sister of the Duke of Florence.

The society the two lovers move in is already deeply spoilt and corrupted; noblemen murderers are banished rather than sentenced to death. Murder has become a currency to get what you want and if it can be carried out with an element of theatre then all the better.

When Bracciano's plans for a liaison with Vittoria are thwarted by his wife he plots with Vittoria's brother Flaminio, in this production gender-swapped to sister (Laura Elphinstone), to have Isabella and Camillo murdered. And so the path to bloody revenge is set.

The production didn't lack energy but it lacked power. It didn't lack blood and brutal murder but it lacked the gasp-factor. There was an earnestness but a lack of tension which, considering the passion and danger involved was surprising.

Above all it lacked connection. It never felt like you really got to know the characters or were allowed inside their world - perhaps the 80s-themed costumes of bad wigs, snow-washed denim and Hawaiian shirts didn't help. Vittoria is a victim of misogyny and the power of the wealthy but she never fully pulls you on side. It has its moments but not enough to give it the wow factor.

The White Devil is far from bad but held up against the other productions the RSC currently has in rep it can't quite compete. It runs at the Swan Theatre until 29 November.

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