When director Maria Aberg was last at the RSC she delivered a joyous production of As You Like It with all the trappings of a 1960s hippy love fest.
A year later and she has a drastically different task in hand – reinterpreting John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The White Devil.
In rehearsal she had the cast watching the recent BBC2 documentary Blurred Lines: The New Battle of the Sexes – with presenter Kirsty Wark’s alarming account of the rise of modern day misogyny as part of the preparations.
Maria says she could only watch half of the programme.
“It made me very angry,” she reveals.
Discrimination and the sexual objectification of women in film are two ideas the 34-year-old was interested in communicating in her modern interpretation of the 1612 play.
Initially she set about writing a new adaptation.
“I started looking at a couple of different text editions including one by Gale Edwards and re-drafted my own version. The RSC has a brilliant archive.
“We have the support of a fantastic academic, Professor Martin White from Bristol University. It does take a long time, but it’s a very good way to get to know the text. And get into the world of it.
“There are particular things I am interested in communicating in the play and it’s a way of shaping the text.”
Sexual politics and gender inequality have been key themes in Maria’s previous productions. In her controversial 2012 adaptation of King John at the RSC, the Bastard was played by a woman – Pippa Nixon – to balance out the male bias in Shakespeare.
Pippa also shined as Rosalind in As You Like It with Alex Waldmann. Here, gender role reversal is in-built as part of the plot as Rosalind disguises herself as a man.
Maria has revised The White Devil to include more gender-swapping. She has re-written Flamineo, Vittoria’s scheming brother, as a woman, played by Laura Elphinstone.
“Because I knew I wanted to do a modern production, I wanted to look at the idea of misogyny. It’s just slightly more complex if you have a woman at the centre thinking she could win by playing a man’s game – but in doing so she is selling out on her own gender and identity,” Maria explains.
“As a modern woman you are encountering a lot of different kinds of misogyny, as well as what is academically known as ‘horizontal hostility’, when you internalise misogyny. It’s a widespread problem.
“Webster has written into the play the particular kind of misogyny of his world. It’s very well-known, standard form of misogyny. Men on women. Men condemn women for expressing their sexuality by various means, including marriage, and ultimately by killing them.”
The White Devil is a 17th century Italian Court soap opera of lust, longing and murder. Lovers Vittoria Corombona and Duke Bracciano, decide the only way they can be together is by getting rid of their respective partners.
Three central female characters – Vittoria (The White Devil), her mother Cornelia, and Bracciano’s wife Isabella – are played by Kirsty Bushell, Liz Crowther and Faye Castelow.
Describing the women, Maria says: “Vittoria is incredibly powerful and aware of how she’s perceived. She uses the received notion of family and financial security to advance her position in a very intelligent way and then falls in love which leads to her downfall. Her path is quite destructive.
“Cornelia is a very strong woman. She is a matriarch. She raised three children largely on her own and is desperately trying to save them – and sadly doesn’t manage.
“Isabella does find some strength in the scene we see but her downfall is she is very much in love with her husband.”
When embarking on a new play Maria and designer Naomi Dawson create an online Pinterest board, sharing their visual ideas.
The pair have worked together on several productions (including King John and As You Like it) and earlier this year Polly Stenham’s new tropical thriller Hotel, at the National Theatre’s Shed (which ended on August 2).
“There a website called Pinterest. We set up a board really early on and we start a visual conversation looking at everything from costume to general atmosphere and the aesthetic of the court. It’s very interesting as you can see the whole visual direction of a play. You can see the starting point,” she says.
The look of the play was partly inspired by the Italian film, The Great Beauty, a study of Rome high society and winner of the best foreign language film Oscar earlier this year. Maria was also interested in looking at the objectification and exploitation of women in film after reading the “pivotal writings” of British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey.
For this production at the Swan Theatre, Maria has collaborated with award-winning art director Nathan Parker – who directed singer Adele in her Rolling in the Deep music video – and Mercury Prize short-listed musicians Django Django to create video sequences and original music.
“One of the brilliant things about theatre is you can pull in all these art forms and all these different collaborations,” she says.
“Nathan was brilliant! The video sequences are all atmospheric, internal and representative. They add a different dimension to the stage play and look at the objectification of women. It’s really exciting.”
Laura Marling composed the music for Maria’s folksy As You Like It; for The White Devil Maria approached psychedelic indie quartet Django Django.
Band members David Maclean and Tommy Grace were more than happy to oblige.
“David (Maclean) had been interested in making music for film so was on board with the idea. His influences for the play include 1970s Italian film music, choral music, contemporary music and club music,” she says.
“It’s brilliant to be able to work at the RSC where that is possible. It has the structural resources to work with and support people like Laura, who have not worked in theatre before. It’s not an easy thing to pull off.”
The White Devil is one of four Jacobean plays with strong female leads in the RSC’s Roaring Girls season. It has opened a wider debate on gender inequality in modern theatre.
As part of the series Harriet Walter will be talking about why she believes there are fewer satisfying roles for women and older women, in classical theatre on September 7.
“It’s been really exciting to see what kinds of discussion have arisen.
“What’s amazing is that a large organisation like the RSC says in such a confident and public way: ‘This is something we need to talk about’. It’s vital and important that it should be at the heart of political conversation,” she adds.
* The White Devil runs in The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until November 29. Ring 0844 800 1110 or go to www.rsc.org.uk