Thursday 23 February 2023

Theatre review: Women, Beware the Devil

James VI & I's legacy for Britain included a paranoid obsession with witchcraft which would long outlast his own reign; his son's mainly boiled down to a bloody Civil War, the temporary overthrow of the monarchy itself, and Charles I suddenly finding himself shorter by one head. Both of these dark elements of 17th century history feature in Lulu Raczka's new play at the Almeida, although Rupert Goold's slick production never quite gets to the bottom of why Women, Beware the Devil is doing any of this. In rural England in 1640, Agnes (Alison Oliver) has been accused of witchcraft, and accusation would usually be enough to get her hanged. The local lady of the Manor, Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard,) offers her protection and a job as a maid, but there's a catch: She wants Agnes to use the demonic powers she swears she doesn't have to help secure a wife for her brother: If Edward doesn't have a legitimate male heir before he dies, Elizabeth could lose her ancestral home.

One blood ritual later and Edward (Leo Bill) is married, much to his own surprise, to the wealthy Katherine (Ioanna Kimbook.) But that's not quite enough to get the required heir and, repulsed by the fact that his new wife comes from new money and not the aristocracy, Edward refuses to have sex with her.

Agnes is still being circled by the other maids (Carly-Sophia Davies, Aurora Dawson-Hunte and Lola Shalam) who don't trust her supernatural reputation. The fact that Edward is perfectly happy to sleep with them, and has currently got Anna (Davies) pregnant, is also a reminder that Agnes hasn't lived up to her side of the deal yet. Now she finally makes a pact directly with the Devil (Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea,) which will put control firmly into her own hands.

There's a glossy look to Women, Beware the Devil, from Miriam Buether's trompe l'oeil set which makes the Almeida stage look as deep as the Lyttelton, to Evie Gurney's anachronistically pristine, mostly monochrome costumes. It gives the impression of the latest popular period drama, but long before all these shiny surfaces get literally bloodied, things get messy in other ways: An incest plotline disappears as abruptly as it appears, Agnes Freaky Fridays with Katherine, and Leo Bill is surprised by beef. Armarkwei-Laryea appears throughout, ostensibly as a series of doctors, witchfinders, Roundheads and Cavaliers, but as they all have hats and wigs that could be concealing horns, who's to say the Devil isn't still keeping an eye on things.

It's a deranged fever dream, occasionally in a good way, the rare kind of show I felt I knew less about coming out than I did going in. It opens with a speech from the Devil comparing those days to the present, so I was looking for specific parallels and metaphors in the play to little avail. Ultimately I think the chaos is the point: Agnes sees the chaos of the Civil War as the inevitable, and perhaps necessary conclusion to centuries of inequality, and it's not a great leap to see the 2020s as going in the same direction. There's certainly entertaining moments and the cast plough gamely through the weirdness, but by the end it's been frustrating trying to make it make sense.

Women, Beware the Devil by Lulu Raczka is booking until the 25th of March at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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