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Reservoir Dogs: the prequel

THE WHITE DEVIL. By John Webster. Mercury Theatre, Colchester

In the brutal world of playwright John Webster's plays, the spiritual and social turmoil of 17th-century England comes across in all its lurid poetry.

Although The White Devil was a flop when it was first put on in 1612 - a failure Webster attributed to the "ignorant asses" in the audience - the play is now a classic Jacobean tragedy.

Set in Italy, the plot shows how the Duke of Brachiano, married to Isabella, falls for Vittoria, whose Machiavellian brother Flamineo helps him seduce her. Flamineo then murders her husband while Brachiano disposes of his own wife. Vittoria is arrested, tried for adultery and murder, and confined in "a house of penitent whores". Then Isabella's bother, Francisco, avenges his sister by poisoning Brachiano and having Vittoria and Flamineo put to death.

Director David Hunt says: "It's a very theatrical play with wonderfully modern moments. For example, in (Quentin) Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, there's that scene with the gun triangle - well, Webster got there 400 years earlier. At the end of The White Devil, Vittoria, Flamineo and his whore stand in a triangle with pistols pointing at each other - it's a great moment."

If the play has a modern message, he says, "it is the theme of hypocrisy, people saying one thing and doing another. Paradoxically, Flamineo, the malcontent, is both the most villainous character and the most honest: he's bad and he says so - a bit like Shakespeare's Richard III." The powerful figures in the play, the dukes andcardinals, "preach one thing and practise another - power corrupts them. Probably an age-old phenomenon."

Hunt has set his version "in the Vatican, with very heavy religious iconography, and I'd like to have the figure of a silent, dying Pope, dressed in white, on stage and watching the play," he says. "In the story, there's a lot of voyeurism, spying and surveillance. Robert Graves once described Webster as going to the bottom of the garden and finding a very pretty stone; underneath, there's all these worms and rot."

Hunt adds: "The main plot - Brachiano's affair with Vittoria - is actually quite insignificant. What the play is really about is intrigue within intrigue within intrigue. There are Machiavellian wheels constantly turning - everybody has a different agenda."

But what about Vittoria? "Well, the play's title, The White Devil, suggests that she's a mixture of opposites: innocence and badness. Is she upright or is she corrupt?"

But in this revenge tragedy, as the corpses pile up, the "hardest thing for a modern audience to get is not the loss of life but the loss of the soul."

At the end, "what you should be asking is whether Vittoria manages to redeem herself or not".

From April 24 to May 10Tel: 01206 573948Schools workshops also availableTel: 01206 577006

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