phone mail2 facebook twitter play whatsapp
Advertisement
Devil With The Blue Dress - Emma Handy, Daniella Isaacs, Flora Montgomery, Kirsty Philipps and Dawn Hope (courtesy of Helen Murray)

Devil With The Blue Dress

21 March 2018 Suzanne Frost

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the world’s most famous intern, Monica Lewinsky, recently took to Vanity Fair to add her voice to the discussion and offer a new view on the scandal that shook America over 20 years ago. With impeccable timing, The Bunker - a studio space theatre for adventurous new work led by Joshua McTaggart - programmed Kevin Armento’s Devil with the Blue Dress, a play focusing on the five women at the centre of the biggest sex scandal of the century. London Calling caught up with the ensemble during rehearsal.

London Calling: Kevin, can you just contextualise for us what your play is about?
Kevin Armento: The play is about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, brought to life by 5 women who were at the centre of it: Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Chelsea Clinton, Linda Tripp who broke the story back then, and Betty Currie, who was Clinton’s secretary at the time. The play conjures the story from different perspectives and allows the gaps in their perspectives to not go unnoticed and become part of the play itself.
 
LC: Originally, you had written quite a different play.
KA: I wrote the first draft three months before the election out of a desire to understand how Hillary Clinton had become the candidate she was, as she was seemingly about to become the first female president. What was her origin story? She used to be seen as this 70s liberal, she was a very pure ideologue early in her career. By the time she was running in 2016, she was considered this centrist pragmatist hawkish figure, and more than anything a really calculating and manicured one. I went backwards to look for when did that start? And I was surprised how much close proximity there was between the beginning of that persona and this scandal.

Kevin Armento

LC: And then the #MeToo movement broke.
KA: Two big waves crushed on top of the play: One was that she lost. It had to become a really different play because I had to incorporate that fact into the drama. The play never references it but it infuses the perspectives.
 
Joshua McTaggart: You felt like you had to reassess how we are treating Hillary in this play. We were ready to take more shots at her when she was on top.
 
KA: Certain things rang funnier when we assumed she was going to win in the end. They’re not as funny anymore. And that fact exposes some blind spots in all of us I think. We were all horrified by so much of what happened to her in the election but we were also, as was Hillary, laughing a lot of it off under the assumption that she was going to beat Trump in the end. It was a shockwave of such magnitude that he won, I really think it is directly connected to the #MeToo movement and it absolutely demanded that the play be inclusive of again not any conclusions but the conversation itself.
 
LC: It’s been 20 years since the scandal and only now are we beginning to reframe that story. What took us so long?
KA: Monica Lewinsky would say that we went through a collective trauma nationally and have still not properly addressed that fact. Her articulation would be that we’ve tried to band-aid over it and move on. Again, I think the illusion of progress allows one to avoid grappling with tough subjects. But when that illusion gets shattered by something as seismic as a sexual predator getting elected president - with no less than 19 accusers - that rips it open. How could it not? You have to go through a major reassessment as a culture.

Daniella Isaacs (Monica Lewinsky) in rehearsal. Photo: Helen Murray
 

LC: Why is this the Monica Lewinsky scandal, why is it her shame?
JM: The way it is discussed referred to and remembered is very different to any other male named scandals.
 
KA: It was a scandal unique in its stature: it was the president of the United States. It did unfold at a unique point in time: the beginning of cable news and internet news both of which magnified it much larger than had it been Kennedy or Johnson, who both had affairs during office, so that’s not new. The way in which it could be covered what new. The antagonism against the Clintons was unique, rightly or wrongly, earned or not earned, but even the political right would agree the hatred against the Clintons was unique. And Monika would maybe say it was her scandal because the Clintons needed it to be her. Because six months after the impeachment, Hillary Clinton announced running for the senate. Somewhere in the middle of those arguments is the real answer.
 
LC: Clinton’s popularity was unbroken during the scandal. The tolerance for misconduct was very high for this man.
KA: He did good things as a democratic president. He did things for women that no president had ever done before; in part because of his wife. That coexisted with his personal crimes and sins towards women. Just as Harvey Weinstein was one of the biggest donors to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and wanted to see a woman in the White House. In fact that correlation is often pretty strong. It’s an interesting by-product of Bill Clinton being one of the youngest presidents in history that he gets to live long enough to see times change against him.
 
LC: Something that Lewinsky is struggling with is the issue of agency and victimhood. She didn’t want to be seen as a victim but is now exploring the possibility that she had been abused in some way, even if the affair was consensual.
JM: Agency is a huge part of the conversation we are having in the rehearsal room. And I think it’s not just the case of Monica, I think all the women involved are exploring how they were impacted by Clinton’s deplorable behaviour that is overshadowed by his brilliant political behaviour. I don’t think we represent any of these women as victims in the play, it’s about giving them agency and fighting for agency. Hypothetically, if Hillary and Monica were in a room together recounting, they would differ. They are in a theatrical space together in a theatrical battle over what actually happened.


Director Joshua McTaggart in rehearsal. Photo: Helen Murray
 
What about Chelsea Clinton?
JM: Growing up, Chelsea Clinton would sit at the breakfast table with Hillary and Bill and they'd make her role-play the role of Bill Clinton. Mum and Dad would throw any rude abuse at her that may be thrown at Bill Clinton to toughen her up for what the press might say throughout her childhood.
 
KA: Much of my play is trying to engage this story with empathy, which I think hasn’t really been done, because it was so sensational. Chelsea Clinton had her first relationship during this time at age 17. The empathy that allows me to access her in any kind of dramatic way comes from imagining what could be her perspective on stage: as you are for the first time trying to learn what the rules and dynamics are of dating somebody, the country is putting under the spotlight the way your dad has mishandled that.


Kristy Philipps in rehearsal. Photo: Helen Murray
 
LC: Hillary accused Monica of “lacking a moral compass”. The world was very comfortable with her being just a bit silly and a bit of a tart. Why is the moral standard this much higher for a 22-year-old woman than a man and a president?
JM: At that point in time, there was literally no empathy for her. What we are trying to do is reframe the way we look at the women who were involved in this scandal. It’s not a historical drama, it’s a political thriller but there is a level of historicism to it the actors have really lapped on to. Each of the actors has gone and researched their roles, and actually they are finding empathy for each of their characters both in what happened and how we respond to that, how we edit and tighten the script and how we stage it as well.
 
KA: It’s also having the distance to recognize where we have evolved and where we haven’t. Her age wasn’t as much of a focus then as it would be today. Of course a male president would be with a young woman, that’s what men do. I don’t remember a single person on the left or right talking about abuse of power or the age gap. Part of this play is contextualising the past without excusing the past. I think it’s really exciting to do this while everyone is still alive. All the players are still here! It makes it thornier in a way that I hope makes for really good drama.

Emma Handy (Linda Tripp)  and Daniella Isaacs (Monica Lewinsky) Photo: Helen Murray

LC: And why is London a good place to show this play?
JM: Like many people, I followed the election very closely, I was fascinated by Hillary Clinton as a figure and also wanted to explore where the world is going in terms of a shift to the right and populism in general. Reading this script, post election but pre Weinstein, it just came alive to me in a way that was thrilling. And I think London audiences are very much driven towards political thriller work and I think a little distance allows us to be braver with how we present it. And although it is an inherently American story and its setting is period, I think it is a troubling universal story.
 
KA: The goal is that it transcends being about these five people. It is not about Monica Lewinsky or Hillary Clinton, it is using them to blow up a much bigger question that I think this country is grappling with just as much as my country. But because this strong relationship to the actual people doesn’t exist here, it helps steer my writing toward that vacuum that allows us to get to the pure questions and debates the play wants to engage in.
 
Devil With The Blue Dress is playing at The Bunker 29 March – 28 April
 
 
Advertisement

Most popular

What to See at The Cinema

What to See at The Cinema

Your go-to guide to what's on the silver screen
Advertisement
Win entry to Kew Gardens with cream tea for two!

Win entry to Kew Gardens with cream tea for two!

Make the most of that springtime buzz you’re feeling.
Advertisement
Win a Tate membership and get unlimited free access to every exhibition!

Win a Tate membership and get unlimited free access to every exhibition!

The membership includes access to the acclaimed 'The EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and Britain'.
Advertisement
Where to Drink: Rooftop Bars in London

Where to Drink: Rooftop Bars in London

Where to spend those suh-uh-ummer nights
Advertisement
The Best Poetry and Spoken Word Events in London

The Best Poetry and Spoken Word Events in London

Whether you're performing on stage or watching your faves, we've got the lowdown on the best places for a poetry fix
London’s Best Alternative Festivals 2019

London’s Best Alternative Festivals 2019

Proving music festivals don't need to hog all the limelight
Top Exhibitions of the Week

Top Exhibitions of the Week

The place to come for all the best current exhibitions in London...
Top Theatre of the Week

Top Theatre of the Week

Where to get the best of new theatre openings in London
Free Festivals in London 2019

Free Festivals in London 2019

Festivals you can enjoy without burning a hole in your pocket
London’s Best Florists

London’s Best Florists

For the coolest, most creative, luxurious blooms around

Your inbox deserves a little culture!!

Advertisement