King John and As You Like It, this year's outing for director Maria Aberg was a show to look forward to, but John Webster can be tricky. And The White Devil is a typically convoluted plot: The setting is Rome, where recently-arrived duke Bracciano (David Sturzaker) soon lusts after Vittoria (Kirsty Bushell,) but she's already married to the poor Camillo. With Vittoria's sister Flaminio (Laura Elphinstone) acting as her sister's pimp, Bracciano tries to get Camillo (Keir Charles) out of the way so he can bed his wife. But he soon wants a more permanent solution both for Camillo, and for his own wife Isabella (Faye Castelow.) When they are both found murdered, Vittoria's adultery means she's also trageted as the killer, and a show-trial follows. The lovers manage to flee Rome and get married, but there are people who want revenge for their former spouses' deaths.
Isabella's brother Francisco (Simon Scardifield) and the banished duke Lodovico (Joseph Arkley) follow the pair in disguise, devising typically twisted ways of bumping off everyone connected to the murders.
Aberg's production is modern-dress, and in keeping with the Roaring Girls series it's part of, includes one of the director's signature moves, of gender-swapping a major character. Here it's Flaminio, given a particularly boyish look for Elphinstone's performance, although the change doesn't really add a huge amount to the interpretation.
It would be going too far to call the production style-over-substance, but certainly its stylishness is the most it's got in common with Aberg's previous, sparkling productions. Naomi Dawson's design approaches the play's mix of religious politics and debauchery with a Catholic iconography-meets-latex theme reminiscent of Lady Gaga.
But the various themes, like the main plot strands, never really coalesce. Webster can be silly but he's also tricky, and this production never fully gets to grips with this.
One of the typically bonkers murders features death by poisoned helmet, and when Aberg turns this into a Mexican wrestling mask, I spotted the spark of invention I wished I'd seen more of in the rest of the show. A few weeks ago "warning" emails were sent out about how this production was particularly gory and sexually shocking. Of course, all such warnings are essentially marketing exercises but the show should at least back it up, and there's not much here to make you gasp. It's a solid production and it looks great but the thrill is missing from this thriller.
The White Devil by John Webster is booking in repertory until the 29th of November at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.