Devil with the Blue Dress @ The Bunker Theatre

by Kevin Armento
Directed by Joshua McTaggart
The Bunker Theatre, Seaview Productions, and Desara Bosnja
29th March – 28th April, 2018

Devil With The Blue Dress, The Bunker (Flora Montgomery and Kristy Phillips) - courtesy of Helen Murray

Photography by Helen Murray

‘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?

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Tickets


Read our interview with Joshua McTaggart here

INTERVIEW with Bunker Theatre director Joshua Mctaggart!

For my readers who aren’t aware of your work, who are you?

I’m Joshua Mctaggart, I’m the artistic director of the Bunker theatre, which is an off-west end venue in London Bridge. The space used to be an abandoned car park when we first got the lease, it was very much in disarray. And then in 2016 we transformed it into a 110 seater studio theatre space with a small bar. We celebrated our first birthday last October, so just over a year now.

This season we’re launching a new season and new bar, which is exciting!

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Joshua Mctaggart – Photo by Simon Paris


One of the articles I read on you described you as the accidental artistic director, how did that happen?

I founded the Bunker with Joel Fisher (the current executive producer at the Bunker). He and I met in 2015 through the springboard program at the Young Vic, and we realized we had similar beliefs about how off-West End theatre should be run in a way that empowers artists. As so often happens in the arts, we sat around having coffee, talking about things we didn’t like about the industry and things we wanted to change. I was always very open about my dream of running a venue one day, with the aim of bringing collaborators together and forming artistic connections in a space.  I think there’s something really exciting about the spaces where audiences and performers meet and where people gather, and something really important about cultural and community spaces. Joel and I had similar beliefs about how we could go about creating a space like that.

Then, about two years ago, Joel and I met with a landlord to discuss this abandoned underground car park that he was using as an ad-hoc rehearsal space. It had no health and safety sign-off, no ramp, no wheelchair access. A Southwark tcouncillor told me it was a car-crash waiting to happen, which I took as a challenge! So, I spent the next 6-8 months overseeing a building site, and we eventually got the licensing and the legals and the sign off, announced in August, and opened with a full season of work in August 2016. We launched with Skin a Cat, which I thought was a very clear statement of intent for the Bunker about what we’re interested in artistically: work from points of view that we don’t always hear from, work that challenges social taboo and gender identity, feminist stories. I think it was a real calling card for us.

Since then we’ve had some huge shows, like La Ronde, which is the first play in several years to be nominated for the Best Off-West End category of the What’s On Stage awards.

Electra - Megan Leigh Mason, Lydia Larson and Samuel Martin (Credit - Lidia Crisafulli)

Electra (27 Feb – 24 Mar) – Photo by Lidia Crisafulli


You’ve talked previously about wanting Off-West End theatre to be produced differently. What precisely did you mean by that?

Well there’s two levels, there’s the creative level and the financial level. On a creative level, it was about the event of seeing the play. All too often, when people go to a play they show up five minutes before, they see the play, and they go straight home. But I’m fascinated by spaces, and so I thought it was critical for people to really inhabit that environment. Because of the nature of the Bunker, we keep the bar open until the end of the night, and we keep the doors open so that people can go back inside. I think it’s really exciting to be able to be right next to a set and be able to have those post-show conversations.

On the financial level, I’m mostly concerned with finding models of producing off-West End theatre that ensures everyone is compensated fairly, while remaining financially viable.


“Beautiful things start, and beautiful things end, but beautiful things will start again. 
I’ve found that as long as you can hold on to that,
you can get through”


What is important to you in deciding what creators you want to work with?

I’m constantly impressed by the way every creative I interact with functions in their everyday life. The challenges of being freelance and of balancing work, play and creation are enormous, and I’m always very impressed by the work people are making and the strides people are taking to be heard. I think what’s really important is that there’s a story that really needs to be told, and a passion for that story. I think it’s much more important that a story have a fire behind it than that it be ‘marketable.’ So, I seek out artists that are passionate about the stories they’re telling, and that share a passion for storytelling. Sometimes you can tell, there are some people that seem to radiate with that passion.

Electra - Dario Coates (Credit - Lidia Crisafulli)

Electra (27 Feb – 24 Mar) – Photo by Lidia Crisafulli

Electra is the next show to go up at the Bunker. Greek tragedy can be quite difficult to pull off, what gave you faith in this particular production?

When someone sits down with you and says ‘I want to take the story of Electra and make it a punk rock performance with actor-musicians. Here’s this really poetic script we’ve been working on.’ It’s impossible to say no, really. Every time you embark on producing a show there’s an element of risk, and what really emboldened me with Electra was the creators behind it, both on the writing and musical side and on the producing side.

Also, they’re a Bristol-based company (DumbWise Theatre), and I think as a London venue it’s important that we don’t get stuck in the rut of only producing work from London-based companies. It’s critical that we develop those artistic relationships and nurture those connections with artists from other cities.

 

After Electra, you’ll be putting on Devil with the Blue Dress. What excites you about American work?

I’m excited about American practitioners, to be precise. What fascinates me about America, and why I think it’s still important for us to look at it as a country, is that America is an experiment: how free can people be while still having a structure of government in place. That’s the question that America poses, and that question leads to really fascinating culture and really fascinating politics. The UK is so very different from America, and so I think that cultural exchange is very important.

I also think it’s fascinating how this particular piece has evolved as the world shifts around it. The play was written before the 2016 election, and at that time it was very much intended to be about where the first female president came from. Then the election happened, and the play became about how Hillary Clinton lost. Now, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the many reports of sexual misconduct in Hollywood and beyond, it’s become about abuses of power by men, and the way we as a society react to those abuses.

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Devil with the Blue Dress (29 Mar – 28 Apr)


What is your message to creators who want to work at the Bunker?

I’m amazed by how many people come and ask me to have a cup of coffee with them who don’t know about the work we do. From a purely practical perspective, if you’re going to sit down and speak with the artistic director of a venue, it would help to have a clear understanding of the ethos of that venue. I’m generally very open to talking to people, but I would say my advice is “know why you want to be at the Bunker.” why should your story be at the bunker? Who is the audience? Where is the passion for that story? And if it comes back to storytelling and a passion for telling that story, then that’s exciting. Don’t come and tell me the story you think I want you to tell, tell me the story that you want to tell. I think that applies both to the Bunker and the industry at large.

 

Finally, is there a piece of work that changed your worldview, personally?

There are two paintings, one in the National Gallery and one in the Tate Britain, both by Turner. One is called the Rise of Carthage and one is called the Fall of Carthage. They’re two epic, beautiful paintings, one about the arrival of Dido in Carthage and the other about the expulsion from Carthage. One time, I went to the National Gallery and looked at the Rise, then walked across the river and looked at the Fall, and then I walked back and looked at the Rise again; and that reminded me that beautiful things start, and beautiful things end, but beautiful things will start again. I’ve found that as long as you can hold on to that, you can get through, whether that applies to art, relationships, or life itself.

 

 


Massive thanks to Joshua and Tilly for their time and patience, and to @samwellswriting for all his help!