29th March – 28th April, 2018
by Kevin Armento
Directed by Joshua McTaggart
The Bunker Theatre, Seaview Productions, and Desara Bosnja
‘This play exists in the space between awake and asleep… Being that kind of space, things aren’t totally realistic. It’s dimly lit. It’s set to music. And it’s where memory lives…’
Walking into The Bunker Theatre for their production of Devil With the Blue Dress really does feel like stepping into some sort of liminal space between past and present, UK and US, fiction and reality. In the cosy, brightly-lit foyer, friendly bartenders joke with patrons as they pour themed cocktails (amber-coloured for Clinton, blue for Lewinsky); step through the doors into the theatre, and you enter a space of shadows and hushed conversation, with the honeyed notes of a jazz saxophonist floating down from the corner. There is no phone signal down here – well, it is a bunker – and the thrust stage is empty, with only three sets of feet visible behind the back curtain, like puppets waiting for their strings to be pulled. The action begins when Hillary, played by Flora Montgomery resplendent in a pink pantsuit, steps out to introduce us to the play and its characters.
The two women in the spotlight in this play are, of course, Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The three other major characters – Chelsea Clinton, Bill’s secretary Betty, and Republican Linda Tripp – exist mainly to facilitate these women’s storytelling and offer alternative perspectives on events. They also play other roles where needed, most notably that of Bill Clinton. All three actresses did excellent impressions of the erstwhile president and were able to signal the switch into his role with no costume changes or visual cues except accent, mannerisms, and facial expressions (my favourite Bill was the version by Kristy Philipps). As a result, the Bill Clinton we saw on stage was both a shadowy, insubstantial figure, and a caricature; he was given no character arc or hidden motives, and all three-dimensionality was reserved for the women of the story, which I think was a powerful and effective decision.
The timing of this production, one year into the Trump presidency and at the height of the #MeToo movement, was of course no accident. Although neither topic is specifically named, much of the play’s philosophical depth comes from this contemporary context and challenges us to consider tough questions. Is consent really consent with such extremes of power differences at play? (“But of course she had a choice / But of course she didn’t”) How do we reconcile conflicting expectations of womanhood within modern feminism? (“None of you have a monopoly on how to be a woman!”) Why do we hold women in power up to impossibly high standards, when the same isn’t true for men? (“People feel like I’m corrupt, or untrustworthy, even if they can’t put their finger on why.”)
The most powerful moment in this play comes towards the end, when the narrative reaches the trial and the Clintons, their presidency, and Monica all begin to fall apart. Hillary, Monica, Betty, and Linda begin hurling accusations and insults at each other, shifting the blame, verbally tearing each other apart, and as the shouting reaches a climax, Chelsea interrupts to deliver the unvoiced central truth of the scandal. Philipps’ performance here sent shivers down my spine.
My only criticism of Devil with the Blue Dress was its metatheatrical elements. There was so much food for thought in this performance, it really didn’t need to have that extra dimension of Hillary referencing the fact that this was “her play”, and alluding throughout to the nature of theatre (the observation that politics and theatre are both centred around spectacle is certainly an interesting one, but was not explored in enough depth to merit its introduction). In addition, the premise that everything on stage was taking place in Hillary’s memory or imagination seemed to be at odds with how much of the action did not involve Hillary, and often explored the thoughts, feelings, and perspectives of other characters. Changes in character, setting, and time were made clear enough without self-referential signposting – I feel that writer Kevin Armento should have had more faith in his audience to catch on, without needing to add a metatheatrical component which felt cumbersome to the story and performance.
This play and production are both unapologetically pro-Hillary in attitude (there are even “I still stand with her” badges on sale in the foyer) and at times portrays her with a level of sympathy (and artistic license) that almost strays into hero worship territory (interestingly, the casting decisions meant that this production’s Hillary towers over its Monica in a way that serves to reinforce the political and moral high ground she inhabits, although in reality Hillary is marginally shorter than Monica). However, this partisanship is unlikely to overtly bother anyone who has chosen to enter The Bunker; they know their audience, and this is definitely a sermon designed for the choir. As a side note, if you are planning on seeing this play, which I would highly recommend, it could be a good idea to brush up on your knowledge of the Lewinsky scandal; as a non-American who was in primary school when these events took place, I no doubt missed some of the political and historical allusions which flew thick and fast across the stage.
There is so much to unpack in this ferociously intelligent production about history, power, gender, and heartbreak – I may have to see it again before its run ends at the end of April. I hope to see you there in the foyer – the question is, which cocktail will you pick, whose side will you take?