In 2016 Kevin Armento was working on a play about the women involved in the 1995 Monica Lewinsky scandal, in the confident expectation that one of them, Hilary Clinton, was about to become the USA’s first female President. Then, Donald Trump got the job and everything changed. Or did it? The story at the heart of the play did not disappear with Trump’s rise to power, and recent allegations of widespread sexual abuse in entertainment and politics means that Devil With The Blue Dress is very much relevant ahead of its opening at The Bunker on 29 March.
Andy Moseley spoke to Joshua McTaggart, the director of the play and Artistic Director at The Bunker to find out more about the production.
Devil With the Blue Dress is the first US co-production McTaggart has brought to the Bunker since it’s opening in 2016. He had been looking for opportunities to bring new US work to the venue, and Armento’s original script came to his attention after conversations with Greg Nobile of Seaview Productions, “We’d been talking about collaborating on something for a long time. He introduced me to Kevin’s work and suggested a couple of his plays to me. I read the original script of Devil with the Blue Dress and fell in love with it”. The script at that time was very different from the version that will be premiering at The Bunker. “It was the pre-election version of the script. Clinton’s failure to win the Presidency then meant the script was rewritten, reflecting the outcome and exploring how Bill Clinton’s legacy may have contributed to Trump’s victory.”
The Harvey Weinstein revelations, the growth of the #MeToo movement and the issues of male domination and systemic abuse of power that are only now being taken seriously, provided a further need to revise the play once they emerged. As a result, the focus of the play has grown into something that reflects “what’s gone before and where we are now” shining a light on how perceptions of victims have changed since the Lewinsky scandal. “Lewinsky was ridiculed, isolated and parodied”, McTaggart says, “and we’re now starting to look at victims differently. We’re talking about abuses of power in a different way, and the issues in the play go a lot wider than the issues in the Lewinsky scandal”.
The question of why Lewinsky received the treatment she did twenty years ago, and why Clinton did not face the same kind of universal condemnation that Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and others are receiving now, is one that McTaggart sees as complex, and not necessarily just a reflection of a greater awareness of the scale of abuses taking place or a shift in public attitudes. “Clinton was seen as a good politician, and social good could blind us to his behaviour” he notes, before going on to say, “while his behaviour may not have been as bad as Trump’s it was possibly on a par with him. Part of the reason for the different response to Trump is the divisive nature of the man”.
McTaggart also admits that “we on the left aren’t very good at holding up our heroes of the past to the values of today”, and part of the appeal of the play for him is that it attempts to do this. “Abuse of power is a universal issue, and we’re only just at the cusp of understanding this. In the play, we’re reframing a piece of political history in light of a shift in societal norms. The play challenges strong-held beliefs on both sides. From a liberal perspective, we’re having to question and re-assess our core values”.
However, while he notes that “the play is an exploration of how one man could behave to five women”, he goes on to explain that “it’s not about Bill Clinton himself. It’s about the women at the centre of the scandal, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton, Lewinsky, Linda Tripp and Betty Currie”. The play unfolds across two timelines, 1995 when the affair took place and 1998 when it burst into public view. Rather than simply dramatise the story that played out in the news, it explores what happened from the perspective of the five women with an all-female cast. In addition to the five women, there is one male saxophonist in the production, his music perhaps suggestive of the way the presence of Clinton remains in the background and framed the events taking place. For McTaggart “the drama is in the five women’s stories, why they did what they did and how they relate to each other”.
Some people may wonder why, given the subject matter, the play is opening in the UK rather than the USA. McTaggart feels that the time elapsed since the scandal may still be too short, and the polarised views of Clinton held in the States too strong, and that US audiences may be less willing to engage with the facts compared to a UK audience at present. He sees the appeal here in both the historical and contemporary relevance of the piece, and in our continuing interest in the US and Clinton. He notes, “we’re fascinated with America and we hold Clinton in high regard. We know about the scandal, and we know about Lewinsky, but we don’t know so much about the others. The play presents each of them without judgment, and the narrative attempts to understand why they behaved as they did”.
At present, the focus is on the run at The Bunker, but McTaggart and Armento are both hopeful that the play will have a long life and resonate with audiences as a piece that grapples with the issues of the day, sheds light on the women involved in the scandal that became the biggest media circus of the late 20th century, and invites us to question our reactions to women seeking power and the men who abused their power both then and now.
Devil With the Blue Dress is at The Bunker Theatre, Southwark Street, London 29 March to 28 April 2018
For more information visit www.bunkertheatre.com
Image: Simon Paris