The Bunker, London – until 28 April 2018
The Bunker’s spring season continues with its first American play, Kevin Armento’s Devil With The Blue Dress. Directed by the venue’s artistic director Joshua McTaggart, this world premiere takes us back to 1998 and explores one of the many sex scandals in political history – though this one famously goes by the woman’s name (rather than the male politician involved): Monica Lewinsky.
The story is explored from the female perspective, with Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Betty (President Clinton’s secretary), Linda (Monica Lewinsky’s confidant) and Miss Lewinsky herself (a White House intern and staffer) making up the main players.
Hillary may start off by introducing it as her play, but by the end each of the five women has had their say. It works from January to August 1998 and also July 1995 to February 1997, in two acts (labelled as ‘Articles’ in the playtext: Perjury and Obstruction of Justice) – beginning with the story about the female intern just about to break, and then veering in and out of memories as the gaps in the story are filled in. As Monica believes it all began back in 1995 at an arrival ceremony, she tells her version of events from then, alongside Hillary’s own narrative.
There could not be a more apt time for this story to be re-told. Bill Clinton was eventually impeached following this scandal and also the Paula Jones lawsuit (she accused him of sexual harassment during his time as governor of Arkansas) – yet, despite numerous accusations coming to light both on the campaign trail and since he took office, President Trump is still clinging to power.
There is also the #MeToo movement to consider, as this is a clear abuse of power, but 20 years on it still feels like there’s more to be said. It’s also a good example to be cited, as it has been dubbed “the first sex scandal of the internet age”. I was actually on holiday in America a couple of weeks after the story leaked, so it was all over the TV and newspapers at the time, lodging it in my very young brain. But I’ve only ever known the very basic details, so exploring it from various angles like this definitely will help others of my generation feel like they have a much deeper knowledge of it after watching the play.
For much of the play, there is some backing music played live by saxophonist Tashomi Balfour. This reference’s Bill Clinton’s love of jazz (and that he also plays the saxophone), so it makes his presence felt as he tries to charm the women around him – and rather neatly can be made to sound like a phone ringing! Whilst it undeniably adds that little something extra to the play with the instrument being played in the room, there are occasions where the dialogue has to compete with it and invariably loses out, due to the volume or the distraction of the tune.
Basia Bińkowska’s set design is fairly simple, with a bare square stage in the middle of the auditorium – it’s backed by White House-style curtains at the back during the first act, changed in the second act to a wall graffitied with “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. Having this in the background is an ugly reminder of Clinton’s behaviour, and how he attempted to shake off the accusations by using precise wording & grammar. Later on, the notorious blue dress is added to this wall of shame (Linda had convinced Monica not to have it dry cleaned when she found a semen stain on it).
There is some enterprising direction from McTaggart, considering the whole audience (as well as the storytelling) as he moves & positions his cast around the performance space. As well as their own individual characters, the actors also take turns to be Bill; Kristy Philipps (Chelsea) is particularly effective. Dawn Hope (Betty) and Emma Handy (Linda) also ably support, but it’s Daniella Isaacs and Flora Montgomery who stand out as Monica and Hillary, respectively. Montgomery giving Hillary a measured maturity, and a warmth in scenes with her daughter – whereas Isaacs is the epitome of an easygoing California girl, that is until her professional & personal frustrations start to get the better of her emotions.
My verdict? A sharp and incisive play that takes another look at an infamous part of US political history, with compelling performances from the cast of five – gripping from start to finish.