by Christopher Hill
As I walk into the Jesus College lodge to ask where to go for the play, I notice the porter flag down a student who I would later find out to be part of the backstage crew. I didn’t catch the whole conversation but it went something along the lines of:
‘I’m just heading to the hall.’
‘So I gather, about all the wax we found in there the other night-’
‘It’s ok, we’ve taken measures to prevent that this time.’
The student then hastily rushed across the quad and into the hall.
Well, that had answered my question about the location of the play. However, it raised more in its place. Upon entering the college’s hall I discovered exactly what they were on about: candles. Loads of them. All dutifully placed on black plastic sheets, presumably to avoid the mess the porter had been referring to.
Indeed, candles play a huge role in White Devil, and to great effect. The quantity of the little waxy point-lights alone was staggering. I counted 60 individual candles, in all shapes and sizes: tea lights, candlesticks in groups within holders, tiny candles within little glass cups. But it was not just the quantity of the candles, impressive though it was, that astounded me but the way in which they were utilised. The candlestick holders lined either side of the stage, and the little candles in the glass cups ringed off the frontmost boundary of the stage. Each character also held a large lit candlestick, and I noted that several of the characters blew their candlesticks out at various meaningful points.
This, to me, was the most impressive part of the display. The candles created a beautiful space, especially when coupled with the surprisingly intimate setting of Jesus College’s dining hall. It seemed like the perfect backdrop for the 1600s revenge drama. However, it was how the light interacted with the characters that most fascinated me. Instead of the persistent multi-chromatic light of most theatre productions, I found myself watching the yellow-gold light dance across the face of the performers. Then, whenever a character blew their candle out, their role in the scene changed entirely. The first scene we saw was a trial: characters are spread between the stage floor and the balcony, which was utilised brilliantly to create the sense of separation between accused, accusers, and jury, and the power dynamic of characters when moving between these two spaces always changed accordingly. When characters blew out their candles, it was usually because their character had said all they saw fit and then went to leave the scene. This gave extra poignancy to their final lines and also focussed the attention of the audience on the remaining characters.
However, the extinguishing of the candles carried the most weight in the second scene. It was at a point where a particularly strong character was vehemently maintaining her position in an argument with two others. However, as she said what would seemingly be her final line and snuffed out her candle, the others continued to press their argument. At this point, she seemed to lose all autonomy, the other characters verbally and physically manipulating her around the stage with barely a word spoken in reply. The entire power dynamic of the scene shifted along with snuffing of the candle. This, to me, gave the candles another significance: a physical metaphor for a character’s autonomy.
The way that this dynamic was maintained by the cast was astonishing. Beyond the spectacle of all the flickering lights, there was much else to be praised in the individual performances. Characters were brought to life on stage – with the outspoken suitably sharp and the obsequious duly dislikeable. In particular, the drawls of the more weaselly characters truly made you feel the same physical discomfort as the character towards whom it was directed. A few lines were misspoken or lost to memory lapse here and there, but even that did not break the atmosphere that had been crafted by the setting, acting, and impressive array of props and dress.
Overall, White Devil promises to be a masterful example of stagecraft and acting married into a cohesive and captivating production. The acting was spectacular, and the managing of backstage affairs was an impressively successful display of chaotic organisation. What’s more, while I would not have personally liked to be in the meeting where the risk assessment was discussed for the practicalities of 60-odd open flames, the effect produced by the collective efforts of those tiny wicks, and its interaction with the expert actors, creates the perfect atmosphere for this fascinating drama.
The White Devil is playing Saturday 19th May at 2.30pm and 7.00pm in Jesus College.